Summary (in One Sentence)

Some reply and elaborate new alternatives; some respond and choose between existing alternatives; some react and deny some of the existing alternatives.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

Another Reaction To: Nussbaum and Cohen’s (2002)[1] For Love of Country?

NOTE: it appears I forget to post this last year; better late than pregnant, as they say.

This book consists of numerous essays responding to a piece by Nussbaum that appeared in the October/November 1994 edition of The Boston Review, which at the time also included 29 replies; in this edition, compiled after 9/11, eleven original responses re included plus five new ones, along with a concluding reply by Nussbaum. Since this is 18 essays in all, I may react more than once to this book. This is the fourth.

As a first note, an observation by twelfth-century monk Hugh of St. Victor bears on the present set of essays:

The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect (qtd. In Todorov, 1984,[2] p. 250).[3]

One of the things to emerge over the course of riding several responses to Nussbaum (2002), and Pinsky’s (2002)[4] piece, exemplifies this, involves the tautology, for example, that patriotism and cosmopolitanism “are not mere ideas, but are feelings, indeed they are forms of love” (85). The false opposition between mere ideas and affects, actually forms of love, makes good on Pinsky’s expressed worry later that he risks an “accusation of sentimentality” (90). Absolutely right, for in his fantasy about Brooklyn, a Brooklyn he admits he never lived in, a Brooklyn that existed if at all only in his imagination as a child, and which looking back he can now admit “was far uglier than [he] supposed in [his] afición for the Dodgers” (90) of that era, he admits that his form of love—call it cosmopolitanism, as he does, or patriotism—has no grounding on anything real.

Immediately, one my say the man who feels he needs to rape a woman or put a genocide in motion gets contextualized by Pinsky’s excuse for this: that eros sometimes takes terrible forms—on grounds just not only just as neurotic and irrational but just as selfish (and that matters more than the neurosis and irrationality) Pinsky expresses a willingness to tolerate rape and genocide, so to speak, just so he can keep his false nostalgia for a time that never existed; “nevertheless, the Brooklyn of the Dodgers is a cultural reality shared by many, and I am proud to be among them” (90).

What remains so irking in Pinsky’s idealization of affect, which borders on the narcissistic in the way he formulates it and which he signals ideologically in the phrase “mere idea,” arises in the notion that these affective experience somehow involved no learning, as if Pinsky (or anyone) would have, does have, these sorts of “feelings” regardless of who or where they live. Notwithstanding that not everyone feels rooted to the place of their birth or the place of their growing up—much less has an illusory nostalgia about that period—not everyone orients to their experience through affect either. One might, in fact, discern in the patriotism versus cosmopolitan debate a Jungian-type distinction between thinking-oriented people and feeling-oriented people. Pinsky’s article, which juxtaposes and privileges one of the most intellectually rarefied notions of affect (eros) next to one of the most affectively driven efforts to create a pure abstraction of language (Esperanto), signals where he comes down on the matter just as surely as the lamentations and garment-ripping opens with make it seem as if Nussbaum has stolen his sweet roll with her essay.

It might seem unjust or unfair or even slightly cruel to react this way; after all, Pinsky fires up a gigantic emotional appeal (more than an argument) so that rejecting it has that quality of pathos that Frye (1957) imputes to the (often female, often rejected) supplicant, who must beg the King for some kind of mercy. But this apparent trap implicates the crux of Pinsky’s argument—must one accede to an appeal, merely because it comes with a big wash of feeling? Once again, the rapist and would-be genocidalist doubtless wants vastly what he wants as well, and so what? Children regularly get their wants crushed, and on far more arbitrary grounds—on that point, one may find no accident that Pinsky’s argument circles around to childhood nostalgia at root; the same root that these kinds of affect-driven appeals to patriotism tend to devolve.

If we can locate the “justification” for crushing children’s desires—children’s’ eros—then it comes at the juncture where whatever the adult must accomplish, whether keeping a roof over everyone’s head, providing food, clothing, whatnot, then this happens in such a way that the child can provide essentially nothing toward that end. I want a toy robot, but my mother has rent to pay—with some creativity, and given a luxury of time, a parent might find a way to meet the wanting of the child without assenting to the specific (expensive) demand. &c. Fill in all the other variegated details of child-rearing as you like. In the present case, in the human task of taking care of the world, his desire for the toy robot of nostalgia may (I say does) warrant crushing, especially as his affect-driven “tear-jerker” involves emotional hostage-taking. It frames an issue in an either/or—or simply picks up Nussbaum’s either/or, though he immediately changes the terms of her argument to suit his—and then comes down in what amounts to a “take it or leave it” appeal.

Nussbaum’s’ augment has two central elements: a rejection of patriotism (this points to the negative part) and a promotion of cosmopolitanism (described positively). Pinsky, like others, uses the latter to browbeat the former, precisely in the kind of way that Nussbaum flags as problematic. Pinsky gets rubbed raw by lectures on jingoism and hurls the epithet provincial liberally at Nussbaum, while getting jingoistic and provincial himself, even adamantly and proudly so; “Call it patriotism” (90). He offers little, if any, rapprochement between Others in culture, dismissing the passion of Nussbaum’s piece as bloodless and abstract, and this while lecturing her for not taking Marcus Aurelius’ advice to listen to others closely seriously enough.

All argumentation remains affect-driven to some degree, but it may shade as well over into affect-blinded. Such affect-blindness, what might be a case of ego-inflation in Jung’s terms, makes for a central concern in Nussbaum’s essay, and in her reply to these essays Nussbaum (2002)[5] specifically says,

We have many ways of avoiding the claim of common humanity. One way, I think, is to say that the universal is boring and could not be expected to claim our love. I am astonished that so many distinguished writers should make this suggestion, connecting the idea of work citizenship with a “black-and-white” world, a world lacking in poetry (139).

Pinsky exemplifies the aptness of this concern, but most of all in his refusal to consider the Other—the one who does not comprise an inhabitant of whatever (imaginary) zone of patriotism the patriot occupies. For all of his professions of admiration for Nussbaum at the beginning of his essay, that she has come out and said these things makes Pinsky wail and, ultimately, he draws a line in the sand: since she shows herself not with him, she proves herself against him.

Putnam (2002),[6] despite being an arch-philosopher, veers into affective terrain as well. In illustrating answers to the question why is discrimination wrong, replies like we are created in the image of go or because we are both fellow passengers to the grave appeal to him in a way that because we are citizens of the world does not. He suggests this test yields the results it does because the history of explanations (religious or social) provide hooks; in other words, he has a history of acculturation to these traditions and thus finds himself reacting according to them, whereas the political appeal of we are citizens of the world has no traction because there exists no tradition (however much Nussbaum sketches it out for us). So Putnam (affectively) responds to what he has been trained to respond to—que mirabilis! Putnam, rather superciliously notes:

It may be that “citizen of the world” will one day have that kind of moral weight and that Martha Nussbaum will have been the prophet of a new moral vision. But it doesn’t today (96).

At one point, Putnam expresses astonishment that Nussbaum has invoked universal reason as she has in her essay. [7] For a philosopher of Putnam’s rank to declare that Nussbaum’s argument lacks merit because it lacks public support seems equally as striking. Having allowed himself this lapse, he then tries to explain it away, and does so with a (possibly useful) bait-and-switch substitution of “critical intelligence and loyalty to what is best in our traditions”(97) for cosmopolitanism and patriotism, respectively. He says this because, without something like a tradition we would have nothing to work on to sort what to keep from what we find worth keeping, a process we must accomplish necessarily as situated individuals, not as empty (universal) reasoning engines, which sound reasonable enough. Presumably, Putnam acknowledges, though without actually saying so, that whatever critical intelligence we might bring to the project of discerning in tradition what we want to keep and what we want to abandon occurs in a situated way itself. In his example, he says, “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust, as contrary to the most elementary principles of morality, and simply as contrary to ‘our’ values, in the style of Richard Rorty” (96). Presumably this expresses Putnam’s situation, and robber-barons might share that situation, even as they merrily (or guiltily) go on perpetuating and imposing poverty on most of the people in the world.

Putnam’s language here rings unpleasantly. He “believes that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust”; such condemnation may provide a necessary but not yet sufficient condition, while couching this all in “I believe” validates on similar grounds (or invalidates Putnam’s point as a belief) the belief that we need not condemn such poverty. Moreover, I might condemn such imposed poverty and continue imposing it, considering myself a sinner, rather than a hypocrite (who attempts to ascribe the evil of such imposition of poverty as actually a good).

Besides these inadvertent ironies of Putnam’s argument for example, which seem more rooted in his lack of real commitment to the tenor of the example chosen, the larger point points to a whole unacknowledged aspect of Putnam’s argument: how does the inquiry (using critical intelligence for the sake of our best traditions) get conducted. If my immediate point above involves who gets to participate, and all of the socioeconomic problems that points to, then once we even manage to get a genuinely representative sample of people to the discussion table, how will the dialogue of critical intelligence occur, in what mode of discussion?

Obviously, the participants will consist of situated individuals—saying this amounts to saying nothing. In fact, what matters in that room concerns not individuals at all but the (status of the) we composed or comprised of them. What does it matter if a King and a Pauper face one another across the table if they encounter one another as human beings—whether because Putnam finds his affect-gland tweaked by “we’re all in the image of god” or “we’re all fellow passengers to the grave” or doesn’t in “we’re citizens of the world”. At that moment at that table, precisely our situated responses as individuals become means not ends to the continuation of a dialogue. Normally they might serve as means, when we do not (in some way) have an Other to account for in our action;[8] in the kind of situation described here, we may recognize the inheritance of a long-standing tradition (to use Putnam’s wording rather than Nussbaum’s “universal value” or “universal reason”) that humans value recognition, compassion, cooperation, and fairness in our conduct with one another. Obviously, at any moment the King might “pull rank” (on defensible grounds or not), but that will no less present a violation of the long-standing traditions of recognition, compassion, fairness, and cooperation.[9]

Insofar as Pinsky and Putnam (seem to) construe Nussbaum’s article as an “attack,” one may read Pinsky’s affect-blinded response both as a reaction to (a perceived) lack of compassion on Nussbaum’s part or as a denial of compassion for Nussbaum’s position. One might say this involves a non-recognition as well, insofar as Pinsky dismisses her position as a mere idea, an abstraction, and bloodless. All of what I’ve called conduct virtues (recognition, compassion, cooperation, and fairness) necessarily hinge on and involve the Other, so a “violation” of any virtue will affect the totality of the Other. According to our own situatedness, i.e., our own orientation to whatever constitutes the preeminent virtue in our constellations of values, we will then read out violations. One may say that Pinsky treats Nussbaum unfairly, for instance, perhaps due to a lack of compassion on his part for her position or out of a (deliberate) refusal to recognize her position, &c. These details, in the abstract, bear no further than on an (my) analysis of the conduct of the static and paper-based exchange recorded in Nussbaum’s collection of pieces. What matters does not hinge on whether I have got it right or whether Pinsky’s or Putnam’s motivations lie elsewhere; the point hinges on my desire to illustrate how the dialogue gets conducted. Nor does this ignore that Nussbaum herself throws down gauntlets—a dog barks, another dog barks back, and astonishment on the part of the first event must seem disingenuous at best.[10] Still, one may discern in the range of responses a range “from” mutual monologue toward dialogue,[11] and the more the exchange moves toward monologue—for example, from the we of a reply such as Butler (2002)[12] or Falk (2002)[13] or Scarry (2002)[14] offer, to the I of a response such as Glazer (2002)[15] or Pinsky (2002) throw out, to the sort of basically instinctual reaction that Gutman (2002)[16] and Himmelfarb (2002)[17] display—the the more and more we see a violation of the long-standing human traditions of recognition, compassion, fairness, and cooperation in various forms. To frame this notion of the distinctions between reply, respond, and react, some cybernetics:

For the living system of human beings, first-order regulators govern cognitive processes, homeostatically maintaining the stability of the unities’ organic states by a reactive process of feedback. Second-order regulators govern self-aware processes, heuristically maintaining the viability of the unity’s organization by a selective process of reacting or responding. And third-order regulators govern meaningful processes, axigenically* maintaining the being of the unity’s identity by a dialogic process of replying, responding, or reacting.

*by “axigenic” I mean value-generating or value-creating.

Taking an event to mean an occurrence that affects a human being as a living system, then human beings may be described as open to the energy but closed to the information and control[18] of a given event (Ashby, 1956). On this view, I use perturbation to connote the energetic aspect of the event, stimulus to connote the control aspect of the event, and message to connote the information aspect of the event. Furthermore, I suggest an event may be described as question that prompts one of three general forms of answer: a reaction connotes a mechanical answer with only a single alternative, a response connotes a dialectical answer selected from among a range of alternative answers available to the living system, and a reply indicates a dialogical answer constructed as a new alternative from the range of alternative answers available to the living system. While perturbations are always answered reactively, stimuli may be answered reactively or responsively, and message may be answered with reactions, responses, or replies.

Orders of regulation (as feedback, heuresis, and axigenesis) absorb input variety toward maintaining a living system’s continued existence (vis-à-vis stability, viability, and being). Feedback, as first-order regulation, reacts in the only way it knows how to the current range of a system variable toward maintaining a stability. Heuresis selects in the only way it knows how from the current range of alternatives available toward maintaining viability. Axigenesis dialogizes in the only way it knows how the range of range of alternatives effectible toward maintaining being.

Scarry (2002) immediately gets at some of this; “the way we act toward ‘others’ is shaped by the way we imagine them” (98), even if the weight of her article considers modifications to the law as providing a ‘role model” so to speak for modification of behavior in the non-legal sphere.[19] Although Scarry’s wording may seem a bit overstated, it bears repeating:

The difficulty of imagining others is both the cause of, and the problem displayed by, the action of injuring. The action of injuring occurs precisely because we have trouble believing in the reality of other persons. At the same time, the injury itself makes visible the fact that we cannot see the reality of other persons. It displays our perceptual disability. For if other persons stood clearly visible to us, the infliction of that injury would be impossible (102).[20]

Her major point, of several fine ones she makes, concerns that “the work accomplished by a structure of laws cannot be accomplished by a structure of sentiment” (110); or, even more succinctly, constitutions are needed to uphold cosmopolitan values” (110).

Nussbaum (2002) permits herself a reply to these and her other respondents, some of which I have not taken note of specifically.[21] One of the recurrent criticized elements of Nussbaum’s essay involves the metaphor of concentric circles—what Walzer tags as the “spheres of affection”. Nussbaum blasts past this criticism by beginning her reply with an image from the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, where one my see the trees planted to honor non-Jews who saved Jews. Each of those trees proposes a moment when the supposedly absolute or “natural” or inevitable spheres of affection were bypassed, to a moment when a human being reached out past all other “local affiliations” to save a stranger. Against this view, Nussbaum opposes how “we have so many devious ways of refusing the claim of humanity” (132), and that her call for cosmopolitanism represents a resistance to such devious ways. She insists that “we are all born naked and poor; we are all subject to disease and misery of all kinds; finally, we are all condemned to death” (132), and in these inevitable essentials we may find that moral allegiance to any person.

Fine, but the platitude of this bears closer analysis. Born naked, yes, but poor: no. In the spirit of Nussbaum’s remark, this disregard for the accident of fortune involved in birth proposes that kings and paupers might find their common cause, but this blows past Wallerstein’s (2002)[22] points not simply that we find ourselves born into a radically unequal world but also that the ‘stance of ‘citizen of the world’ … can be used just as easily to sustain privilege as to undermine it” (124). Nussbaum’s invocation of naked and poor here almost reads like her spitting in Wallerstein’s eye.[23] Consequent to this inequality, the disease and misery we find ourselves exposed to substantially differs so that the usual (wise) caution against trying to compare sufferings suddenly becomes instead a way to neutralize criticisms of the structural causes of various sufferings, i.e., yes, I suffer disease and so to you (our common humanity), but my cancer originates from bad luck or an unhealthy lifestyle, for example, while yours originates with a globalized industry dumping carcinogenic toxins into your water supply ( difference in material human conditions that matters significantly).

As a human being, I want also to object to “condemned to death”. As regards anything inevitable, then we become freed, at least in principle, to decide how she shall feel or think about that inevitably. Regions provide various alternatives to “condemned,” but I want to emphasize Jung’s rather existential notion that death represents a goal one achieves, not an event that happens to a person. If Nussbaum wants to feel condemned about death, then (to paraphrase Mustapha Mond in Huxley’s Brave New World), she’s welcome, but this provides no grounds for insisting that death condemns all people. In this sense, that we all die has no significance, how we reply to that inevitability, both as the one dying and as the community or world or family where the dying occurs, has significance.

Related to this “obvious” assumption (that we all die), Nussbaum equally takes a misstep when—still trying to sketch in the human baseline where she can ground her main argument—she says, “we are all born into family of some sort” (135); the adopted, and especially the transracially adopted, know otherwise. Nussbaum might say her point does not change inasmuch as the adopted wind up in some kind of family ultimately, even if only an orphanage or foster care or the family of homeless street kids, but two things need adding to this if her point can stick. First, that she insists that the variation between, say, the average life expectancy for people in Sweden and Sierra Leone “is not just, and we had better think about it. Not just think, do” (135), then clearly the we would need also to consider how those who do not get born into a family, as Nussbaum generalizes, also “is not just, and we had better think about it. Not just think, do.” Second, the presumption that one may assert an equation of human birth and family as a human baseline must at minimum to expand to recognize the experience of those (adopted, orphaned, fostered, abandoned) who do not begin their affections or loyalties or experiences in the “circle” of family; the nation-state may set “up the basic terms for most of our daily conduct” (135) but not because “we are all born into a family of some sort” (135). Not only then may the metaphor of “family” show itself as ideological an inadequate as an organizing concept for “nation-stet” (however much those born to families extrapolate it as valid). We also see that something other than “family” itself prevails as the organization for the social order generally, because not all “are born into a family of some sort” (135).

Earlier, I noted Putnam’s seeming lack of concern for the poor even as he employed them as an example, and especially his preface “I believe”; “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust” (96). Here, Nussbaum asks in a similar way:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

Just as Putnam arrogates to himself an end of responsibility by proposing to condemn the poverty, here Nussbaum asserts that posing the question suffices. We may rest very assured that the answer to the tritely rhetorical questions Nussbaum proposes came as a resounding yes, all the more so when a supposedly cosmopolitan response fins sufficient to pose these “hard questions” and to insist that the course of action “will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137).

Are you shitting me? The next section of text begins, “As we pose these questions, we should value human diversity” (137)—Nussbaum has segued in matter of sentences from any kind of relevance into the depths of imperialist apologetics, illustrating Wallerstein’s (2002) warning that cosmopolitanism may as much abet as challenge privilege. Espousing a (justifiable) concern for hierarchy, Nussbaum insists that “some forms of diversity are clearly separable from hierarchy: most religious and ethnic differences” (138). Numerous wheels might get pitched at this, but I simply here want to underscore again—because Nussbaum’s effort of reply here keeps trying to get to the “basics” of human experience as a ground for her argument—that “religion” does not constitute a human universal, so long as one neglects to address atheism.[24] This point matters because Nussbaum cannot conceptualize matters outside of “the profound importance of religion, and respect for religious difference, in a just society” (137). The possibility that religion amounts to a socially destructive, and ultimately antisocial, superstition does not seem recognizable to Nussbaum as she characterizes her views here.

Not to take on the role of kill-joy, but when Nussbaum inserts as an intentionally humorous aside that “this does not mean that the world citizen cannot believe that the Bulls are better than all other teams. World citizens never deny was is self-evidently true” (138), this exemplifies the underlying falseness of Nussbaum’s view, just as surely as her trite rhetorical questions that we should debate how to address the question of world justice while children simultaneously starve for our benefit. In a pathetic footnote to this piece of cultural chauvinism by Nussbaum, where one hopes to find a proper measure of apology for this ridiculous incursion, instead she writes, “Marcus Aurelius did say that Stoicism required one not to be a partisan of the Green or Blue teams at the games—but he was speaking of a Roman context in which such rivalries gave rise to delight in the murder of human beings” (150).

I should add all manner of qualifiers acknowledging Nussbaum’s (poorly executed or offered) attempt at humor, but this moment in her reply functions much like the garish and ill-advised illustration of fucking in the street in her opening essay. Let her call me a humorless prig, her patriotic joke and its smarmy attempt to disregard the very source of her arguments precisely where they most apply, precisely in the face of an explicit point to the contrary, believes exactly the kind of licensure of privilege Wallerstein (2002), with an equal lack of humor and with just cause, warns against.

In imagining the imaginative displacements that occur in art, the way that “fictive places … indicate a … desire to lure the imagination away from its most complacent moorings in the local” (140), Nussbaum ascribes a significant capacity to art precisely to tap into something like human universals to reach some of the highest moments of human realization, what Putnam called critical intelligence. But in the process, she pretends that this proposes a representation and, moreover, an often highly problematic representation of the Other, whether written by an Other or not, i.e., as outsiders: “people who, by virtue of their outsider status, can tell truths about the political community, its justice an injustice, its embracing and its failures to embrace” (140).[25]

Further on this point, it matters that Nussbaum begins this section of her reply by correctly flagging the affective bias of several of her critics and ends by an appeal to the affective power of art (to represent) universal human truths as exemplary cases of cosmopolitanism; hence, “Dante was a poet of his time … but if he were only a poet of his time, … Pinsky would not be producing his magnificent poem translating him, nor would any of us care to read his works” (141). She imputes a cosmopolitanism to Pinsky, one of her most emotionally shrill critics, precisely in his commitment to the value of (again) translating Dante’s poetry into English, but this obviously and at best ignores how such an avowed commitment to universal or cosmopolitan ideals adds substance to, or simply serves as a plausible smoke-screen, for the need for Pinsky to feed himself and his family and for late-order capitalism to continuously provide old commodities in new packages similarly to stay alive and in business. Because in general, no one (not even Italians) especially care to read Dante’s work, and those who do predominantly do so because someone like a Pinsky or publisher insist, with Wikipedia, that “his Divine Comedy, originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature” (from here)[26]—what sluggards and dough-brains we may deem the Italians for not having managed anything better since the fourteenth century![27] And, just for the sake of precision in these things, we may note some statistics with respect to the number of editions and publication dates for Dante’s work. For the Commedia itself, however renamed or misnamed by others, we have 8,789 editions published between 1400 and 2011 in 64 languages and held by 7,072 libraries worldwide.[28]

  • Inferno (1,399 editions published between 1515 and 2010 in 45 languages and held by 5,258 libraries)
  • Purgatorio (630 editions published between 1768 and 2011 in 31 languages and held by 2,968 libraries)
  • Paradiso (432 editions published between 1769 and 2010 in 26 languages and held by 2,577 libraries)
  • Vita Nuova[29] (1,033 editions published between 1570 and 2011 in 29 languages and held by 2,246 libraries)
  • Monarchica[30] (298 editions published between 1559 and 2011 in 13 languages and held by 1,464 libraries)
  • Il Convivio[31] (302 editions published between 1490 and 2010 in 9 languages and held by 773 libraries)

I wish to show, in this specificity, the obvious historical vicissitudes in the history of Dante publication. Dante died in 1321, and the masses of publications especially appear from 1400 onwards. Moreover, despite the commedia being all of a piece, the separate publications of the three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) stand out, especially as the latter two works followed independently more than two hundred years after Inferno. Dante’s famous cycle of love poetry Vita Nuova, has enjoyed a nearly equal fame, quantitatively and from date of publication, as the stand-alone Inferno. Also, conceptually there seems something amusing, ironic, or perhaps tragic in the fact that one may encounter the insights of purgatory in more editions, languages, and libraries, than the consolations of paradise.

The mere bluntness of this all as the cash-cow Dante represents does not militate against any aesthetic value in itself; it merely points out how disingenuous the claim sounds that Pinsky, or anyone, seeks to add the 8,790th version of a seven hundred year old book on the grounds of the humanistic values it purports.[32]

Over against the “I know my immediate family first and humanity second” notion of moral development, Nussbaum suggests a narrowing down movement; that one begins generally and this finally collapses (early on) to one’s immediate surroundings. Hence,

a plausible view about the origin of moral thinking is that it is, at least in part, an effort to atone for and regulate the painful ambivalence of one’s love, the evil wishes one has directed toward the giver of care. In atonement for having made the overweening demand to be the center of the universe, the young child agrees to limit and regulate her demands by the needs of others” (142–3).


[1] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism) Boston: Beacon Press, pp. i–xiv, 1–155.

[2] Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, i–xiii, 1–274.

[3] As an adopted child, exiled to life in the United States, I includes Todorov’s additional remark: “I myself, a Bulgarian living in France, borrow this quotation from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in the United States, who himself found it in Erich Auerbach, a German exiled in Turkey.

[4] Pinsky, R. (2002). Eros against Esperanto, in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 85–90.Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] Nussbaum, MC (2002). Reply. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 131–44,Boston: Beacon Press.

[6] Putnam, H. (2002). Must we choose between patriotism and universal reason? in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 91–97.Boston: Beacon Press.

[7] Putnam suggest she may have over-reacted to Rorty’s call for a new consideration of patriotism, the very call that elicited Nussbaum’s original essay in the first place.

[8] Obviously, this very premise opens up a whole host of issues regarding my obligations to people I cannot see, and so forth.

[9] As a matter of recognizing situatedness, while one might look far and wide to find someone who has a principled aversion to one of these four virtues of conduct, one will in fact regularly find differences of emphasis about which of these four carries the greatest weight. Negotiating these differences of situatedness through a recognition of the conduct virtues of recognition, compassion, cooperation, and fairness remains essential as does flagging and resisting moments when someone attempts to (or actually does) flout these virtues.

[10] The whole exchange orchestrated by Nussbaum and Cohen has implicitly non-virtuous elements, insofar as the supposed debate (as a dialogue) consists more of mutually exclusive monologues.

[11] I question to what extent dialogue can occur through a mediated format. Minimally, such an exchange proposes at least one additional layer of representation; I represent my situated position in whatever form I manage (on paper, online) and that provides what my dialoguing interlocutor encounters (as an image of me) as a basis for her own mediated, imagized, representation of a reply, &c.

[12] Butler, J (2002). Universality in culture. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 45–52,Boston: Beacon Press.

[13] Falk, R. (2002). Revisioning cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 53–60,Boston: Beacon Press.

[14] Scarry, E. (2002). The difficulty of imagining other people, In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 97–110,Boston: Beacon Press.

[15] Glazer, N. (2002). Limits of loyalty. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 61–65,Boston: Beacon Press.

[16] Gutman, A. (2002). Democratic citizenship. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 66–71,Boston: Beacon Press.

[17] Himmelfarb, G. (2002). The illusions of cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 72–77,Boston: Beacon Press.

[18] Here, control is an exact synonym for regulation and indicates the external regulation of a system, living or otherwise.

[19] It can hardly come down to a simple yes or no, but at least in terms of public discourse it seems that some of the qualitative aspects of racism that existed prior to the civil Rights movement in the United Stets have experienced an ebb. For committed and structural racists and racisms, this retreat amounts to a retreat to cover and sniffing it out and exposing it remains a crucial social issue. One may agonize as well over whether or not the “naiveté” of the current younger generations about race—i.e., the friendly or apathetic confusion they express about issues of race—do not also (or still) comprise a significant element in the current forms of committed an structural racism. One may say, unpleasantly, that mass incarceration and increasing wealth disparity have “solved” the problem of racism, for instance. But whether these reactionary steps by Power have not just changed but made worse the kind of racism that prevailed prior to Civil Rights requires no glib yes or no either. If the answer fundamentally comes down to yes, then Scarry’s faith in constitutional change as a role model for changes to the constitution of social life becomes problematic.

[20] “Impossible” seems impossible to maintain here but one may substitute “improbable” or “implausible” (on the grounds of mere humanity or enlightened self-interest or even a Hindu realization of identity with another), but we might also suspend disbelief for the time being and entertain the possibility that “impossible” actually applies—perhaps similarly in the sense that Wright and Levac (1995)* describe noncompliance by a psychiatric patient as a “biological impossibility” (1).

Wright, L. M., & Levac, A. M. C. (1992). The non-existence of non-compliant families: The influence of Humberto Maturana. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 17, 913-917. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.1992.tb02018.x

[21] Walzer’s (2002) “Spheres of Affection,” pp. 125-7, permits himself an only trite, short, and smarmy reply, perhaps betrayed by the allusion to “feeling” in his title; Taylor’s (2002) “Why Democracy Needs Patriotism” throws around generalizations without answer why one might need democracy or whether patriotism needs democracy; and Amartya Sen’s (2002) “Humanity and Citizenship” does some of Nussbaum’s work of replying particularly to Bok, Putnam, and especially Himmelfarb, who (what Gutman and Walzer) stands as one of Nussbaum’s most contemptuous respondents.

[22] Wallerstein, I (2002). Neither patriotism or cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 122–4,Boston: Beacon Press

[23] Even more so, since she specifically cites statistics on life expectancy in different countries of the world, specifically to refute the notion that the “luck” of these numbers “is not just” (135); and not just luck, one might add.

[24] The habit of treating atheists as a form of religious sometimes has merit, depending upon the atheist, but generally the move serves merely to misprision the atheist critique of theism.

[25] This passage, which fails to adequately represent Butler’s (2002) contribution, it seems, also seems to ascribe to Joyce and Whitman this kind of outsider status. Everyone constitutes an outsider somewhere—Joyce as an Irishman stood as an outsider to dominating Britain, and Whitman, as a (more or less closeted homosexual), stood as an outsider to heteronormative culture, but this does not prevent either of them (as white males) from arrogating to themselves the license to depict the Other. In other words, the relationship between outsider and Other stands by no means simple and straightforward—one may rightly ask to what extent Joyce’s representation of Leopold Bloom as Jewish deserves such an evaluation or the justness of making Leopold Bloom, s whatever kind of Jewish person a critic decides Bloom presents, as a representative for all Jewish people. Whether Joyce intended it or not, whether he believed he kept a grip on his thematic material, a favorable critic cannot simply wave away the ways that Leopold Bloom (or Gunga Din in Kipling’s poem) become representatives because their authors represented them. Just because some (aspiring) elements in a society may find a favorable orientalism advantageous (for their political aspirations) does not make the representation any less a representation or any less problematic as a representation of an Other. In Canetti’s (1960)* Crowds and Power, he provides a putative alternative to a sociopathic will to power in people in the political realm, by the sociopaths desire to name and fix and control (if not eliminate) the Other and other people, with what turns out to be a sociopathic will to power in the artistic realm, by the sociopath’s desire to name and fix and control (if not eliminate) the Other and other people in fictional works. So, the problem Nussbaum supposedly solves here—the benefit of cosmopolitanism insofar as in its artistic forms it exposes the universal or most essentially immanent aspects of humanity in general—fails to acknowledge this potentially equally problematic sociopathy that art may contribute to. In a strictly orientalist vein, comprador intellectual Azar Nafisi’s (2003)** right-wing subsidized Reading Lolita in Tehran provides a grotesque example of this as, in fact, does Canetti’s Crowds and Power, albeit in a far less culture-wide sense.

*Canetti, E. (1962). Crowds and power. New York: Viking Press.

**Nafisi, A. (2003). Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books. New York: Random House.

[26] Or so our great shill of modern imperialism, Bloom (1994)* assures us.

*Bloom, H. (1994). The Western canon: the books and school of the ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.

[27] Not that we English speakers have done any better since Shakespeare (see note 26, just above).

[28] As noted, “No other poem in any language has had such a wide appeal” (see here, as also for the statistics I cite above).

[29] This comprises a cycle of Dante’s love poetry, along with other themes.

[30] This represents Dante’s treatise on political theory, the kind of government best suited for human beings.

[31] This unfinished work offers a kind of vernacular encyclopedia of the knowledge of Dante’s time.

[32] As titillates and then reassures us (the language here gets goes beyond precious) about Pinsky’s translation:

The one quality that all classic works of literature share is their timelessness. Shakespeare still plays in Peoria 400 years after his death because the stories he dramatized resonate in modern readers’ hearts and minds; methods of warfare have changed quite a bit since the Trojan War described by Homer in his Iliad, but the passions and conflicts that shaped such warriors as Achilles, Agamemnon, Patroclus, and Odysseus still find their counterparts today on battlefields from Bosnia to Afghanistan. Likewise, a little travel guide to hell written by the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri in the 13th century remains in print at the end of the 20th century, and it continues to speak to new generations of readers. There have been countless translations of the Inferno [in point of fact, they have been counted, and by one count number 8,789], but this one by poet Robert Pinsky is both eloquent and tailored to our times.

Yes, this is an epic poem, but don’t let that put you off. An excellent introduction provides context for the work, while detailed notes on each canto are a virtual who’s who of 13th-century Italian politics, culture, and literature. Best of all, Pinsky’s brilliant translation communicates the horror, despair, and terror of hell with such immediacy, you can almost smell the sulfur and feel the heat from the rain of fire as Dante–led by his faithful guide Virgil–descends lower and lower into the pit. Dante’s journey through Satan’s kingdom must rate as one of the great fictional travel tales of all time, and Pinsky does it great justice.

Summary (TLDR Version)

A divided narrative makes very different kinds of demands on a reader—and even fundamentally disabuses a reader of the usual selfishly individualistic gratifications and expectations that novels tend to provide.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[2] Monster & Other Stories [Some More]

This reply will likely have nothing to do with Duarte’s book, but instead continues my previous exploratory post about “divided narratives” (from here). I hope not to merely repeat what I said previously—though I’ll have to summarise it—but I stress to you in advance that what I explore here may seem narrowly or emptily focused on merely an aspect of literature (or music), but it actually opens up on the qualities of artistic production in our world in general while suggesting also what we might do to help art regain its force of social transformation (as part of making the world and the world we find immediately around us a more desirable place to live).

Four Types of Collection

Thinking about “collections” both in terms of short stories or musical albums, I would roughly identify four types:

(1) collections where the stories or songs were not composed or collected with any explicit relationship to each other in mind. This describes most anthologies of short stories and most albums of popular music.

(2) collections where the pieces were composed or collected without any explicit relationship to each other but belie an implicit relationship because they bear the mark of their composer’s interests. For instance, collections of stories by Flannery O’Connor or musical albums by Carole King or Tori Amos.

(3) collections of pre-existing (often unrelated) material explicitly pulled together after the fact in order to create a further “artistic statement” out of that material. For instance, the musical examples of Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back—an album of covers by himor the Melvin’s We Reach, which features covers of Melvins music by others bands, or books like Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (and perhaps Ellen Gilchrist’s In The Land of Dreamy Dreams or Victory Over Japan, see below), which collect independently composed stories into intentionally meaningful collections.

(4) collections of materials explicitly created with a relationship to the other pieces included in the collection, e.g., concept albums in music (like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Quadrophenia)or books like Joyce’s Dubliners.

An axis of consideration here hinges on whether or not the artist either imagines in advance or in the process of working on something that several smaller pieces might be deliberately and explicitly connected to one another. I don’t know the history of Joyce’s composition of Dubliners, but when I wrote Endnotes, I did not set out knowing that the story “I’m The Only One Who Feels This Way” would ultimately inspire a collection of short stories that I deliberately interconnected. Either way, this makes Dubliners and Endnotes analogous to concept albums like The Wall and Quadrophenia.[3]

Arguably, Dubliners offers us a novel, not a collection of short stories, but this description makes sense more because the novel as a genre itself seems capable of carrying pretty much any structure you can throw at it. And, actually, if we get more anal about what exactly constitutes the sine qua non of the novel as a genre—I won’t do that here, but you might consult in more detail Baldridge’s (1994)[4] The Dialogics of Dissent in the English Novel for some pointers in that direction—we might find that the “collection of short stories as novel” offers some key differences from the novel per se. For one, “while [character development is] not the only structural feature that sets the novel decisively apart from its predecessors, [it] is nevertheless a definitional aspect of the form” (Baldridge, 7).

What constitutes one of the novel’s most decisive breaks with the past, then, is its representation of protagonists whose personalities alter and develop, usually in small and discrete steps, as a result of seemingly nonpredetermined experiences over the course of an extended narrative. Characters in novels, when first encountered, are usually figures whose biographies have not been inscribed in any other text and who therefore appear to possess a relatively “open” future, in which willed action and blind circumstance (in varying proportions) will combine to determine the direction of their subsequent careers (8).

A most salient difference between this and the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners (or my Endnotes) involves a more consequential emphasis on “place” than “individual”. In Joyce’s book, this means, of course Dublin, as in my book, which centres on Olympia, Washington. Similarly, in Egejuru’s (1980)[5] Towards African Literary Independence: A Dialogue with Contemporary African Writers, she cites Achebe’s correction of certain Occidental misreadings of his book Things Fall Apart:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

By presenting, intentionally or not, a narrative not centred on a single individual, but rather on the distribution of individual characteristics over the whole of a city, Joyce (by design or not) gives us a “novel” that more accords with Achebe’s sense of the novel. Certainly the novelistically crucial element of character development seems either wholly absent or present only metaphorically.

Most “concept albums” do not so ambitiously or adroitly reach this kind of high-level cultural statement, but they do intend to elevate the possibilities of the musical album beyond simply the typical collection of individually entertaining songs (type 1) or songs that belie the mark of the person writing them (type 2). Similarly, many sorts of specialized anthologies of short stories collect material after the fact (type 3-style) in order to give us something more than simply an exemplary heap of compositions: my own literary studies, for instance, considered works not normally deemed “Gothic” in light of Gothic tropes, tendencies, and criticism.

For want of a better term, all of these types of collections have an organizational “centre”.

In type 4, one sees this most obviously in the “concept album” where, precisely, the concept forms the organizational centre (as an axis) around which the bulk of material circulates. In Joyce’s case, this meant deliberate or evolved sense on his part that he could organise Dubliners around Dublin itself.[6] This kind of “concept” art (in music and literature) emerges out of from a (developing) pre-existing idea that the artist employs to make the piece.

By contrast, type 3 takes pre-existing disparate material and reworks it into some kind of (hopefully) “new” statement, whether this involves Faulkner reappraising his own work for Go Down Moses or Peter Gabriel performing a selection of covers (i.e., other people’s music) to make an artistic statement of some kind.[7] The main difference between type 3 (reworked collection) and type 4 (concept album) to what degree the materials one works with already have some aesthetic (or artistic) component—in a sense whether one uses wholly formed other pieces or starts “from scratch”. But even then, (as the history of the novel attests) a hard and fast line between “revisiting already extant old material” and “reworking disparate materials from scratch” becomes difficult to insist upon, at least as a generality. When Pink Floyd composed “Comfortably Numb,” not only did they draw inspiration from the whole body of pre-existing music they knew, but part of this included their own previous work.

I suggest we may find this distinction between “reworked material” and “from scratch” most readily in the familiarity of the reader or listener. For example, for those who first heard The Wall or Quadrophenia, the albums (though by well-known bands) most likely seemed like music encountered for the first time (i.e., as if “from scratch”), even if they were familiar with the music of Pink Floyd or Who touch. By contrast, to hear the several covers by Peter Gabriel, a whole history of other listenings to other versions comes into play; in fact, Gabriel’s project (like tribute albums generally) seems to presuppose this. He intends us to compare “his versions” to “other version”.

Similarly, the reading public generally encountered Joyce’s Dubliners whole-cloth (“from scratch), whereas with Faulkner’s Go Down Moses most of the stories (if not all of them) had appeared previously in magazines, sometimes in very different forms.[8] So, notwithstanding that few people had probably encountered all of the stories Faulkner had previously published, nonetheless Go Down Moses offered the public a sometimes radically different re-visitation of those separately, disparately published stories.

In both the type 3 and type 4 case, then, a unifying “concept” organises the material, but in type 3 the author or composer finds herself at more pains to deal with everything that already inheres to the piece worked with—as when Gabriel has to decide how he approaches a particular cover, most likely taking into account along the way all, many, or some of the other versions of the song that already exist.

In any case, and whatever claim one might about a composer or author’s intentions, type 3 and type 4 both have some kind of organizational centre that serves to inform the project as a whole. Call this an “intrinsic organizational centre”. BY contrast, anthologies of short stories or music by multiple artists (type 1) or collections of short stories or music by single artists (type 2) do not generally have any overall unifying concept that relates to the material in the collection itself. This does not mean the compilers did so in a random or haphazard way. One may often easily discerned an attention to detail in the sequencing of the pieces (especially on musical albums). More banally, one also sees in type 1 compilations a financial motive clearly at work, as certain obvious or celebrated songs or short stories wind up over and over again in such compilations. Here, the organizational centre seems extrinsic to the content of the works themselves.

As far as the power of art as a socially transformative force goes, type 1 and type 2 collections necessarily fail to active this power, however powerful or moving a given song or short story feels. I mean by this that any given song or short story might (still) possess all of the artistic power it ever did but the context where it occurs as part of a collection does not support, and more likely diminishes, that power, in the same way—as Enki Bilal’s (2014)[9] Phantoms of the Louvre suggests, whether deliberately or accidentally—that museums undermine and diminish the power of art. The briefest way to make this points means underscoring the extrinsic organizational centre for such collections; every individual work in the collection exists not for itself or its effects but for whatever (extrinsic) purpose the compilations serves (typically to make money or increase the social cache of the writer/performer).

All of this talk about “collections” serves to shed light on what we might call a specific kind of collection: the divided narrative.

Divided Narratives

What I mean by a divided narrative needs more detail (forthcoming) but I must also distinguish it from other narrative forms (specifically from the novel in general). Faulkner’s (1939)[10] If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem previouslysuggested (see here) the example of a divided narrative that started this entire speculation, but the question came up in light of the apparently random compilation of graphic stories in Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[11]Monsters! and Other Stories.

To look first at the book that started this, Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem offers two stand-alone narratives (“The Wild Palms” and “Old Man”) that he intercuts together. The two elements to emphasise here: (1) both stories could stand on their own as complete works, without editing or modification (i.e., both offer long short stories or novellas); and (2) the intercutting keeps interrupting both narratives (i.e., the work keeps cutting cuts back and forth between the two narratives, telling a portion of each until the book ends), unlike a collection of novellas, like King’s (1983)[12] Different Seasons, where we get each whole novella all of a piece, one at a time.

By contrast, novels will sprawl over any number of sub-plots, cutting back and forth between them as necessary, but less in the mode of a divided narrative than more. For one, most material in a novel tends to resemble something more like a type 3 or type 4 collection; that is, all of the material collected gets organized around an intrinsic organizational centre. Except in some very large novels (or sometimes in short but sloppily written ones), we have only one protagonist and all of the subplots and whatnot serve to colour, contrast, or support the protagonist’s main arc. Even in something as massive and sprawling as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre (the protagonist) and his development comprise the centre of the book; even the love story of Andrei and Sonia, while essential, deliberately serves Tolstoy’s purpose of showing Pierre’s story in a certain light. In other words, the main plot sub-ordinates the sub-plots. In a divided narrative, both narratives make equal demands upon the reader’s attention—neither narrative forms a sub-plot of the other.

Hence, the impressive and remarkable capacity of the novel to switch its attention from one area of focus to another does not automatically or inherently reflect what happens when a divided narrative switches attention. Here, it feels more as if the narrative we switch to has no “knowledge” of the other one; it may even seem a wholly different world. Thus, a divided narrative may sometimes feel like an anthology (or even more like a couple of novellas crammed together), except that the author has (presumably) placed these narratives in proximity to one another for a purpose, even if she doesn’t (seem to) let them communicate.[13]

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at times has the quality of a divided narrative, insofar as the Sam and Frodo part of the narrative (once they leave the main group) seems utterly disconnected from all of the other various political shenanigans and adventures traced in other parts of the book(s). And this points to a risk in a divided narrative. For readers principally hooked by or drawn to the Sam and Frodo part of the story, all the rest of the book(s) may seem gratuitous digressions (or vice versa). Similarly in Faulkner’s book: readers not moved either by the plight of the woman and her lover (“The Wild Palms”) or the convict and the pregnant woman in a boat on the river (“Old Man”) may feel bored or at a loss why Faulkner included either a narrative at all.

For those familiar with group role-playing, especially Dungeons & Dragon, the divided narrative can appear in an annoying way when one player in the group takes his or her character off independently. The DM must then conduct (generally secret) side conversations while everyone waits for that piece of divided narrative to get handled or wrapped up. Sometimes these side conversations amount to little more than interrupting digressions, but other times they can introduce a whole new story element into the campaign played.

Besides the annoying selfishness of this (on the part of the player who personally hogs the DM’s time to himself), part of what makes this narratively problematic (relative to the on-going story of the roleplaying in the first place) concerns how it changes the orientation of the story (the group-written story created by the role-players as they play). In other words, while the story previously seemed about X (i.e., whatever the group understands as their group goals, &c), this digression by a single individual adds another branch or strand or bit of narrative to the story, thus changing it.

Immediately, we understand that this “new” story element integrally relates to the “old” story. This element doesn’t enter the picture only or merely as gratuitous digression. It becomes a part of the story (in fact, it has always been a part of the story, we just didn’t know it) that we have to take account of. In roleplaying terms, of course, this means the gaming group does not have only to complete whatever quest or thing they’ve gotten sent on, but also to deal with this new side element—so the addition doesn’t make for something everyone can simply ignore.

Part of what may make this sort of thing unwelcome (for most in the group, though welcome for the one who initiated it) involves the change in narrative expectations. Everyone thought the adventure consisted of X, but actually it consists of Y. We could read this kind of “split” then also in how Tolkien keeps cutting away from all the other material in his book(s) to “deal with” the Sam and Frodo narrative. If initially the reader believes we will follow the whole group from start to finish, the divided narrative changes that expectation (for better or worse, depending upon the temperament of the reader). Those who already find Aragorn pretentious or boring may delight in cutting away from him (or vice versa).

What does any of this sound like in music? To deploy a very literal version of a divided narrative, imagine taking two current pop songs and cutting them together sequentially. Here again, if we like one of the songs but not the other, we may find ourselves annoyed or put off by the disliked song as we wait (impatiently) for the good stuff to come around again. It seems easy to imagine that hearing such a thing would leave one wondering, “Why did someone bother to cut these two songs cut together this way?”

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any musical piece that does exactly this. But the standard song format of verse-chorus does something like it in the way it intercuts back and forth. Similarly, very often the chorus (very much by design) has more melodiousness, a more hummable melody, or whatnot. In other words, part of the function of the verse seems designed to make us crave or look forward to the chorus. We might sometimes find ourselves wishing the song consisted only of the chorus, &c. To the extent that the chorus subordinates the verse to itself, then we don’t have an exact analogy with a divided narrative. It seems much easier (or at least much more common) to juxtapose two apparently unrelated narratives than to juxtapose two apparently unrelated (verse/chorus) pieces of music. Nonetheless, Mike Patton’s Mr Bungle (and other projects by him) often deploy something like this.

Imagine a song with a death metal verse and a lounge-music chorus,[14] however dissimilar the parts might strike us on a first listening, and however much we might despise one or the other (or both) parts of the song, we will still tend to understand it holistically, as a total piece. We have to stop and remember how we first heard the song—gloriously banging our head as the death metal chugged out, but then feeling our jaw drop when the lounge music kicks in. Puzzled, we then happily bang our head again when the death metal returns. &c. Divided narrative. And from that point forward, we look forward with dread or loathing to the lounge-music chorus. Or this all runs the opposite way: we want to switch off the death metal, only to delight in the lounge music chorus, hoping the song has finally gotten its head straight. Then the return of the death metal. Sadness. &c.

But once the song ends after our first listening, now we have a sense of the whole thing. We can wonder, happily or with a gnashing of teeth, why anyone would put a song together like that. Whatever expectations we had going into the song (for or against death metal or lounge music), now that we know the whole thing, our expectations have (for better or worse) changed. We know now that we will get death metal and lounge music in equal portions from this particular abomination (or blesséd aerial spirit).

So a divided narrative (as the musical example suggests) offers a curious experience in that it especially breaks down or challenges our expectations while we read (or listen). I think most people don’t like this (more on this shortly), but whatever thwarting of expectation this brings, once the piece ends, we have (or can drum up) more of a sense of “what it was really all about”. In all probability, we did not figure out why we were getting handed their parts in sequence (by the author, the songwriter), and now that we’ve reached the end, we might piece together an answer, if only because the author/songwriter no longer defeats our expectations (again) by adding more material.

I overstate things slightly. When I hear death metal followed by lounge music, I likely enter some degree of confusion. When the music then switches back to death metal, I might hazard any number of different explanations. Maybe the songwriter meant the lounge-music chorus as a joke, for instance (and I might thrum with joy to return to the soothing world of death metal). But when the chorus of lounge-music returns, I have much more of a suspicion that the songwriter hasn’t just veered temporarily into a wholly dissimilar music as a joke. The chorus, in fact, might still embody a joke, but it has become a different kind of joke now. The first time offered (possibly) a digression, but when it hangs around officially as the actual chorus, the joke becomes integral, not incidental. &c.

In fact, the A-B-A (verse/chorus) song structure has a similar experiential feel. I get used to the verse (as a musical gesture) and then “suddenly” I get confronted by some different material (the chorus), which afterwards shifts back to the verse. In this case, the chorus usually remains in the same “genre” as the verse, even if the music of the chorus seems very different (or even in a different key). The metal of the Seattle band Nevermore very consistently deploys this sort of thing, placing much more melodious choruses after variously aggressive metal verses. &c.

The main difference, of course, hinges on the fact that the A-B-A structure generally doesn’t veer outside of the genre it starts in, but we nevertheless might still find ourselves resenting the verse (or the chorus) because the chorus (or the verse) more engage us. But also, along the way, a standard A-B-A song structure usually won’t overtax our expectations to the point that we say, “What the fuck?” (even in cases where we don’t like the verse or the chorus equally).

Music that proposes a divided narrative, like the death metal/lounge-music example, would. But this does not mean that when Tolkien shifts from Sam and Frodo to everyone else, or when Faulkner shifts from “The Wild Palms” to “Old Man” that either of them switch genres. Tolkien and Faulkner alike remain within the ambit of the writing they start with; rather, the reader’s expectations gets twitted. In music, songwriters have a “simple” way to twit expectations by smashing disparate genres together. A literary writer might do the same expect that the novel has long enabled such genre-cramming—Bakhtin points this out extensively—and our familiarity with the novel makes this kind of move now seem so normal it hardly fazes us. Rather, a writer (wishing to break expectations in this way) needs to shift attention to a wholly unrelated narrative. Or, rather, that offers one excellent way to achieve this effect.

Meanwhile, in the same way that we can decide at the end of a death metal/lounge-music song “what it really means,” we have the opportunity once a literary divided narrative ends also to make a similar determination. In Tolkien’s case, his divided narrative reunites, so we have a work that only partially presents an example of the form. Faulkner’s book, by contrast, leaves the division of the narratives completely intact.

Of course, while we hear an A-B-A song (made of “standard stuff” or a death metal/lounge-music contrast or not), we will make tentative conclusions along the way as to “what it’s all about”. Human beings “are” meaning-making beings; we can’t not make meaning except that we have died or in a vegetative coma (and maybe not even then). And in a similar way, readers of Faulkner’s book will make tentative conclusions along the way as to “what it’s all about” (i.e., why Faulkner crams these two narratives together).

Let me say, if I have not already, Faulkner may have crammed these two narratives together because he had two novellas on his hands, and novellas hardly ever get published. If so, I’ve no doubt that Faulkner after the fact would have offered any number of lovely reasons why (on artistic grounds) the two narratives warranted their cramming together. Let this point hold, it doesn’t change the characteristics of a divided narrative; it only explains how Faulkner came (on non-artistic grounds) to offer one to the public.

But also, the fact that a divided narrative (like Faulkner’s book) more or less places an additional responsibility on the reader after finishing her reading to figure out “what it was all about” (i.e., why these two narratives co-occur) does not give them the sole authority to speak on it and does not negate whatever (artistic) intention Faulkner felt moved by.

Confronted by a death metal/lounge-music song, two things seem certain: (1) the listener understands unambiguously that the songwriter has gotten up to something, and (2) whatever the listener’s expectations in music—even her expectations specifically about death metal and lounge music—the song has put the listener into a zone where previous experience and expectations offer little (or no) guidance. So, these two facts diminish an absolute claim (on the part of the listener) to authoritatively declare “what it all means” (because the field of their experience and expectation offers little or nothing in the present case) while also underscoring the intentional authority of the songwriter (because one can hardly miss the fact that two wildly disparate, even inappropriate, genres have gotten mashed together deliberately).

This may explain, in part, why people frequently dislike divided narratives and why, in fact, they occur (in a form as exaggerated or “pure” as Faulkner’s) only rarely. However, insofar as the A-B-A song structure occurs a bazillion times a day, we see in this that the experience of it represents operates only something like a divided narrative, as opposed to the death metal/lounge-music version, which presents a divided narrative per se. This shows also how Tolkien’s narrative—in the fact that it ends with a reunion—offers only something like a divided narrative,[15] and (all else being equal) its popularity may result partly from the resolved tension of the narrative’s division.

But both the standard A-B-A song and Tolkien’s narrative bring something of a closure to the dividedness in the work. The composer enforces this closure, with an infinitely repeated chorus at the end or a tidy summing up of that action, &c. With a divided narrative per se, we get no such closure—so at this point it needs adding that our death metal/lounge-music song needs to exit out its back end in some innovative way lest it seem merely some perverse variety of A-B-A. Or, speaking more precisely, it does represent a perverse variety of A-B-A (and thus offers no innovation in form, but only in content; it shows that the “rule”—a song cannot switch genres—needn’t be followed. And this does indeed twit our expectations, but more about what we might “permit” in songs and less how songs gets constructed.) In Faulkner’s case, the last section of “Old Man” ends and with that the book ends—the other narrative “The Wild Palms” itself has already ended.

Many authors writing something like this would feel tempted, no doubt, to add an epilogue—if not in fact to provide closure in the book then at least to give a clue to the reader (perhaps) “what it’s all about” (i.e., why the two narratives were crammed together). The difference between music and literature intrudes in all of this.

For one thing, we all know the A-B-A song structure so well, that even if a songwriter belligerently repeated A-B-A-B-A-B without variation, we would still tend to read “B” as the “chorus” and would still feel that “B” marked a kind of correct or appropriate end to the piece. With Faulkner’s book, or a divided literary narrative generally, after establishing the A-B-A-B switch between narratives, no end to this really resonates as complete. The narratives will come to an end (everyone might have died, &c), but simply to stop (not so much end) on “B” (or “A”) will tend to feel more arbitrary. The sequence simply ought to continue (and an author might leverage exactly that sense, to create an open-ended feel).

But the specific sort of register or feeling or failure of a literary divided narrative’s end still differs from its musical counterparts. To put this one way, literary divided narratives stop rather than end, whereas our overwhelming familiarity with musical forms makes even a divided musical narrative seem to end rather than just stop. Of course, knowing this, a songwriter may find ways to make her divided narrative stop rather than end: breaking off in mid-musical phrase, appending some entirely alien material not present earlier in the song, &c.

And all of this, again, points to the non-popularity of divided narratives.

I would suggest that these days—if not in the days of yore since the advent of the middle class—the consumption of cultural productions serves that ideology of selfish individualism that dwells at the heart of capitalism (as one of its big selling and bragging points). Many critics have noted the “subjectivity” and “self-gratification” of the novel-reading experience (Baldridge, 1994). In this way, the notion that “whatever you make of it is right” discourages readers and listeners from any kind of constraint on their listening and reading. Not to say this inherently sucks, but certainly for the artist who had something in mind, this “customer is always right” attitude toward cultural products (1) pus authorial intention not just in the back seat but in the trunk, and (2) undermines the capacity of art of exercise its transformative power in culture.

Why? Substantial change entails a change to a thinking and behaviour not previously known to a person. If a cultural production permits me to follow the known channels of my experience, i.e., that which I already know causes me pleasure, then this path of least resistance pretty much by definition cannot comprise the path of change.

Thus, although a reader or listener always, at the end of a piece, has some amount of “work” to do to make sense of that piece, the kind or degree of work required (in this era of encouraged selfish individualism) will only consist of that work we already stand ready to do. A piece that asks us to do what we don’t want will generally get set aside.

The structure of a divided narrative, such as Faulkner’s book, thus not only very pointedly throws the presence of the author into the midst of the readers otherwise masturbatory reverie (because who else but Faulkner can get blamed for this ridiculous presence of two unrelated narratives in one book) but also places certain kinds of interpretive constraints on the reader that less often appear, or make themselves far, far less palpably and pressing felt, in non-divided narratives.

In War and Peace, for all of the sympathy that Tolstoy exhibits towards Andrei and Sonia, it remains hard to miss that he considers it less pressing that the dilemma facing Pierre.[16] A reader rather easily can pick up Tolstoy’s intended contrast, although thousands of readers have nonetheless felt that Andrei and Sonia’s story makes the core of the book. By contrast, a reader seems more in the dark how to even orient the relationship between the man and woman in “The Wild Palms” and the man and woman in “Old Man.”

I do not mean countless readers and critics have offered interpretations, or that readers never follow their path of least resistance in “reading out” the stories they want to read from the two narratives. I mean, rather, that the sorts of markers that, in novel, connect the dots between different narrative elements (whether the author does so overtly or unconsciously) “are” actually not connected in a divided narrative. The reader adds them, but we get asked to precisely without those usual markers and not in the usual way.

On the one hand, this makes “path of least resistance reading” even easier. But readers usually like to have (or at least congratulate themselves with the conceit) that they have correctly read the book, that “their” reading makes sense. When they get on an Internet forum and talk to others, they might quickly find their boneheadedness exposed to all (i.e., someone insisting that Andrei and Sonia present the most important part of Tolstoy’s book). But with a divided narrative, where one can hardly miss that any assertion of a link between the narratives comes only as a hypothetical offer, then the kind of work to “prove the case” no longer requires the usual tricks and tropes of reading.

But in a far more mundane way than all of this, a most basic “offense” at work in the divided narrative involves the endlessly recurring doubt that these two stories should co-occur. Again, critics have spent quite a bit of ink patiently reassuring us that Faulkner explicitly draws links between the two narratives, but if we take the spirit of its divided narrative seriously (even to the point of reminding Faulkner he might have gotten it wrong about his own text), then we have to admit that this kind of insistence on links needs grounding in something other than our usual tricks and tropes of reading.

A most banal example of this: that the story consists of a man and a woman will easily tempt people into a (heteronormative) “Adam and Eve”-like scenario. And certainly Faulkner helps us along in veering in this direction. But we have no justification for this, even when someone points to the relentless use of biblical material Faulkner liked to resort to.

I do not mean to say that such an interpretive tack (1) yields nothing interesting, or (2) “is wrong”; rather, the interpretive premise it rests on does not find its support from the narrative itself but only from the imagination of the reader.

Just to mention specifically, one of Faulkner’s most persistent, agonized, and most recurring themes concerns the human attempt to turn the disparate chaos of being into “history” (along with all of the contestations and multiplicity of voices that entails). In many of his books, often as much by accident as by design, he presents readers with multiple versions of events, shows various characters trying to make interpretive sense of those events themselves, and thus invites or offers the reader to join that fray. To take up the fundamentally human task of trying to make sense of a baffling and confusing (and often tragic) welter of events.

Perhaps more than any other of his works, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem makes a structural principle of this theme. He presents us with two unrelated narratives, both equally making demands on our attention for significance, and thus places us in the position of his characters in other books. In this scenario, and in part because the contested issue concerns “the qualities of history” and not just “my subjective reading of history” (contra Canetti), the book forces us to have to consider something more like an objective reality (i.e., whatever “reality” we shall all, consensually, acknowledge as the case, rather than some reductionist notion of “fact”). Whatever typically masturbatory luxury of “reading” we try to indulge, the presence of the wholly unrelated divided narratives keeps intruding to break that reverie.

Most assuredly, as Faulkner goes on giving us more and more from each narrative, we will keep spinning up whatever (tentative) sense of “what it all means” as we go, but this occurs not in the context of a “standard novel” (where a reveal functions rather like exposing some piece in a puzzle) but instead obtrudes “alien material” that has no ready marker or clue (from the author) how we should fit it in. This seems, in my opinion, to profoundly embody that human experience of transforming “chaos” into “history”.

In a “standard novel,” one might attempt this, of course, but at every point along the way, the overarching unity of “world” that the novelist presupposes always already makes us either (1) assume the presence of a marker of relevance (to the plot generally) and incorporate the new bit accordingly, or (2) feel angrily or delightfully challenged by an apparent anomaly, which we assume we will later integrate (or forget about). In a divided narrative, the literal presence of two worlds makes all such sense-making tentative at best. But—again to dwell on the most basic experience of it—because things in one world carry a specific marker of non-relatedness to the other world, we may (or will) constantly come up against the question, “Why is he telling me this?” And very often, rather than more or less confidentially feeling some answer will eventually come about, we read on with a far less sanguine faith that maybe we will not get an answer.

Or, since this book originates with Faulkner not Hemingway, it means we will have to work to make an answer that makes sense not just for “me” but for “us”. However often Faulkner’s characters seem doomed, they nevertheless refuse defeat. In the face of the chaos of the cosmos, they don’t get the easy answers of nihilism and giving up but also not the easy answers of “it’s whatever I say it is”. Thus, to every insisted upon interpretation of Faulkner’s book, one may ask the critic not “why that” but “why do you want that”?

And that question becomes available generally where we encounter a divided narrative. This presence of social (not individual) interpretation thus links the divided narrative to the specific socially transformative power of art. In this respect, it no longer seems surprising that people have generally overlooked this novel by Faulkner. As a divided narrative, it will certainly least encourage the reader (lover of Faulkner or not) to have the kind of sweeping aesthetic experience that novels (and Faulkner’s novels in particular) provide.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics, pp. 1–87.

[3] And, of course, Tommy as well.

[4] Baldridge, C. (1994). The dialogics of dissent in the English novel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England

[5] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

[6] I want to at least stress how all of these types involve compilations, whether with malice aforethought (like The Wall or Endnotes) or after the fact (e.g., anthologies or the Melvins tribute album). Obviously, a typical novel consists of “collections of chapters” and the like. And the history of the novel shows enough complexity that to claim some essential difference between “constructing a novel out of disparate materials” (such as short stories, like Joyce did) compared to authors who “construct novels out of disparate materials” (of all sorts, like they all do) will lead quickly to difficulties in trying to maintain the distinction I would make. Even at a sort of basic level, to say that what distinguishes Joyce’s work (or my Endnotes) involves the entirely stand-alone character of each story doesn’t necessarily guarantee that such a “short story” can’t get construed as a “chapter” (of a book). And, in fact, we will find hundreds of thousands of examples of exquisitely crafted chapters in books that could, like a short story, get lifted out of the text and praised simply on its own. So, whatever difficulty this proposes, at least in the case of Joyce’s book, the only “real” connection between the characters of the different (and unrelated) stories arises from their shared environment (Dublin) but also the fact that we read them as one. In a typical novel, the most disparately unrelated chapter gets “read” into whatever we conceptualise as the “plot” overall. Nothing in Joyce’s text demands that we connect “Araby” (the first story) to “The Dead” (the last) in any way, except again that we know of the shared environment (Dublin).

[7] Singing personalities, like Andy Williams, Madonna, and thousands of others, when they sing an album, do not typically or explicitly aspire to make some kind of “artistic statement” out of singing other people’s music. The object remains merely for the sake of entertainment and economics, both of which may play a role in artistic production, but which comprise only a part of artistic production in toto.

[8] “The Bear” had appeared in a much shorter version.

[9] Bilal, E. (2014). Phantoms of the Louvre: NBM Publishing.

[10] Faulkner, W. (2011). The Wild Palms:[If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]: Random House LLC.

[11] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics.

[12] King, S. (1983). Different seasons: Penguin.

[13] The intercutting of the narratives also differs from an anthology.

[14] It wouldn’t surprise me to find a piece by Mike Patton doing exactly this.

[15] A difference here involves the scale of time. Novels run long; songs run short. However much a verse sucks, we will get back to the chorus fairly quickly. In the case of Tolkien’s book, one spends quite a few pages in one of the “wrong” narratives, and this may more quickly dissuade a reader from continuing. Although, short attention spans that people have these days, even the scant few seconds of a disliked verse might prove more than enough to make someone change radio stations or skip to the next song.

[16] This very fact, I would suggest, helps to make Andrei and Sonia’s circumstance more powerful in the book.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Tirres claims that the rituals he observes subvert the categories of “us” and “them” without acknowledging that non-Christians remain “them” with respect to those in the ritual. Meanwhile, what seems like his enthusiasm at discovering a solution to the problem of (his own?) disengaged sense of faith permits him to set up an authoritarian lens for interpreting these rituals; one where the experts (he and the festival organisers) get permitted the main voices heard in the analysis. In a liberation theology context, where making space so the voiceless may heard represents a fundamental gesture, this authoritarianism appeal to expertise seems radically misguided. Where may we find the voice of the Other in this chapter?

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 2]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 here.

In his second chapter, Tirres focuses “ethnographically” on the Good Friday liturgies at a church in San Antonio. His basic claim involves that the dramatic public performance of ritual—a modern passion play—sets the stage to merge a visceral and immediate (aesthetic) experience of faith with an ethical, transformative impulse as well. In other words, the passion play does not serve merely as a (profound) entertainment but also calls people to change their lives toward answering the ethical call of Catholicism, i.e., an awareness for helping the poor, comforting families affected by gang violence, &c. He sees these public rituals as offering the kind of experience that transcends the “aesthetic or ethical” split currently dominant in (academic) discussions of faith. In other words, it shows his desire to “approach the aesthetic and the ethical as inherent and common qualities of experience, rather than rigid or separable domains of human experience, which is still, unfortunately, the reigning approach today” (6).

He describes at length not only the various components of these public rituals but also the explicit compositional decisions its organisers make in order to make the ritual currently relevant (e.g., having someone sing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Webber and Rice’s (1970) Jesus Christ Superstar.) He identifies this kind of gesture of “updating” as an attempt to explicitly link past and present, so that there and then becomes open to experience as here and now. Thus, what might remain only at the level of (profound) entertainment—an important story about something that happened a long time ago—becomes transformed into something that has necessary and immediate relevance and meaning now. He similarly emphasises several dramaturgical moves that collapse the distinction (or help to collapse the distinction) between actor and audience, or audience and participant in the action of the passion play.

Tirres seems to report this as some kind of striking innovation, but in both theatre and ritual this kind of gesture has ancient antecedents. Eliade (1954)[3] long ago established a function of ritual to return as returning its participants to “archetypal time”—i.e., collapsing past and present—and even in the domain of epic poetry, it too collapses the here and now of its listeners to an archetypal time before time, or a kind of Golden Age (Bakhtin, 1981).[4]

Regardless, the apparent narrowness of Tirres’ claim does not negate it. He writes:

Insofar as popular ritual obscures the distinction between past and present, popular ritual also invites one to revisit the meaning of tradition and one’s relationship to the larger community. Is the purpose of one’s tradition primarily to conserve the past, to return to that which the community has always held dear? Or does one understand tradition as a dynamic give-and-take between present and past, wherein one selectively retrieves elements of the past in order to meet the changing demands of the present and future? As the San Fernando Good Friday liturgies seem to suggested, present experience has as much claim on ritual participants as do the archetypal stories of the past. At San Fernando, tradition is not only re-claimed by ritual actors, but also, re-crafted (40).

I should say now, if I have a primary criticism of this chapter, it arises from the fact that Tirres makes (and generally supports) broad claims for how ritual collapses and transcends dichotomous categories (like past and present) while at the same time remaining mired in dichotomies in his analysis. Here, for instance, he asks whether the tradition acts to conserve the past or offer a dynamic give-and-take between present and past. More still needs saying, but this suffices to flag the issue.

One thing very missing from the above paragraph from Tirres involves the question: who decides the purpose of ritual (i.e., whether it conserves the past or signals a dynamic give-and-take between past and present). For this specific passion play, the rituals’ organizers, albeit with “democratic” gestures towards others, decide the shape and dramaturgy of the event. I do not mean to say by this that they do with ideological malice aforethought. Let them act in an authentically religiously committed way, they still serve as the gatekeepers for what the ritual publicly intends.

More generally, and insofar as Tirres invokes (if obliquely) the social “theme” around how tradition and innovation interact within a culture, we might turn to Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[5] Northern Tribes of Central Australia.[6] Spencer and Gillen record at least one instance where a younger (adult) male attempts to insert an innovation into a long established ritual practice. This innovation becomes subject to approval (i.e., prohibition or support) by the group’s elders. As such, an innovation might occur once but then be suppressed in future ritual performances or it might become integrated into all future performances. But the very fact that such innovation might occur at all runs contrary to the conventional insistence that traditional cultures never change or do so only accidentally. Spencer and Gillen show instead how such change may come about, although with a great deal of cultural inertia and political resistance from the established elders. Further, one imagines that when this younger adult male reaches the status of elder, he might re-implement his innovation (if it has remained suppressed over the years), subject to political finagling with his elder peers.

So we may understand, in the “dialogue” between conservatism and innovation as far as past and present go, to speak of tradition as an either/or fails to acknowledge that some group has the power to determine an answer to this question. Thus, any give-and-take does not occur between tradition as a conservation of the past versus tradition as a dynamic give-and-take of past and present, but between the people who hold those positions and content political, culturally, about it. Tirres does not tell us what gestures or events done “by the public” during these rituals ever get taken up as permanent parts of future rituals, for instance. We do not know to what extent unsolicited requests by “the public” to add or modify elements of the ritual get implemented, although he does tell us how the organisers solicit and attempt to distribute compositional responsibility to others besides themselves.

This absence of a power analysis seems problematic if not disingenuous, especially in a context where one has the looming history of Vatican authority forever lingering in the background and in contrast to a liberation movement that expressly challenges (usually secular) Power. Moreover, insofar as liberation theology aims to take up the cause of the voiceless, it seems very questionable as well that Tirres provides only principally his voice as the representative lens for the event. Ethnographic work requires self-conscious reflection, which Tirres gives very little of, but since he must have had access not just to the organisers of the ritual, who he quotes, he could have at least found informant-participants from the rituals themselves to validate his claims about the function of the ritual. Very early on, he names one organiser who has changed the ethos of the ritual’s organization; Tirres presents this to contrast a previous situation described by one woman that Tirres identifies only as “a long-time cast member of the via crucis” (32): that “some members of the cast participated just because they wanted to be on television” (33).

I will make a lot of hay about this. Why should Tirres provide neither this woman’s name nor her actual words? He only refers to her (as a long-time cast member) and only indirectly quotes her statement. This, in contrast to the (male) ethos-changing organiser, who not only gets named but (in a perhaps unfortunate irony) also gets his picture in the book in the costume of the lead Roman soldier. I don’t at all mean to suggest an active sexist conspiracy here, but see this as simply part for the course. Even if Tirres noted a possible problem in reporting the matter this way, it didn’t rise to the level of significance in his (or his editor’s) view.

In other contexts, this may seem no less glaring but at least less problematic. Here, where the aim to speak for the voiceless stands at the centre of the project described, to render this woman nameless and to not allow her own voice to enter the text, even though Tirres clearly spoke to her, rings very much more problematically.

In the paragraph immediately preceding the one quoted at length above, Tirres writes:

In its own way, popular ritual at San Fernando engages quintessential moral questions. As we have seen, it raises important questions about who “we” are. What is our identity, and to whom are we accountable? By subverting dichotomies between “us” and “them,” the Good Friday liturgies invite participants to think beyond their most immediate identities of self, kin, and work. Participants move from being modern, Mexican-American Christians to being first-centuty Jews, from isolated individuals to members of a broader spiritual community, from passive onlookers to active agents who shape narrative meaning (40).

Several bits want unpacking here.

First, you (my reader) might be struck by Tirres’ summarised assertion here that modern, Mexican-American Christians transform into (or simply identify with) first-century Jews. Previously, Tirres cited how historical performances of Passion plays have at times have notoriously leveraged anti-Jewish sentiment (as the “killers of Christ”) while the San Fernando ritual, by contrast, explicitly or implicitly seeks to resist that tradition. “Likewise, [the presiding priest] also reminds participants that they, as Christians, share a social connection with Jews. Both groups are part of the pueblo, the ‘People of God’” (27). This “widened appeal to God’s pueblo encourages participants to think about their own social identity in more comprehensive and interconnecting ways.

Of course, this temporal bridging of identity marks another (attempted) collapsing of categories, but Tirres’ analysis (at a minimum) begs the question of this identity. Historically speak, who constitutes a first-century Jew and what element of identification gets highlighted here. In theory, any first-century Jew who accepted Yeshua bin Yusuf as a messiah not only like would have seen him in political rather than spiritual terms, even in spiritual terms he represented a schismatic heresy against Orthodox tradition. But how do modern Mexican-Americans, participating in a ritual that depicts the dominant and orthodox discourse in the United States, acting heretically? Quite the opposite.

The most obvious emphasis seems the oft-repeated persecution of early Christians, but if first-century Jews did really suffer persecution (whether as religious schismatics or at the hands of Roman authorities), that suffering bears no resemblance to the typically self-pitying cries of “persecution” by modern Christians. Once again, this disingenuous whining seems ridiculous enough already but in a liberation theology context, where the cry “you’re oppressing me” goes up from mainline religious because the poor and disenfranchised call them to task for their complacency, abuse of power, and hypocrisy, the claim for such an identity (between modern Christians and first-century Jews) becomes especially gross.

We needn’t “blame” Tirres for this fact; whether he supports the claim or not, he simply reports the intention of the ritual’s organisers. Much more troublingly, Tirres fails in two ways to ground the claim, “By subverting dichotomies between “us” and “them,” the Good Friday liturgies invite participants to think beyond their most immediate identities of self, kin, and work” (40). First, as already noted, his own work in this chapter remains shot through with unresolved, non-transcended dichotomous categories, such as the dichotomy between a tradition that conserves the past or the offers a dynamic give-and-take between past and present. And in his work so far, this failure to transcend dichotomies colours his whole work, as he fails to mediate his main analytical categories, i.e., the “aesthetic” and the “ethical”. Mind you, his description of the Good Friday liturgies does show ways that the organisers have at least attempted to collapse distinctions like past and present; whether the rituals actually affect this remains harder to tell, since Tirres gives us only his interpretive lens for the event and no surveys or empirical research from the participants.

Second, and much more seriously, nothing in what Tirres reports suggest a subverting of the category of “us” and “them”. In the first place, the ritual itself serves as a massive demonstration of a powerful “us” to the surrounding city (“them”). This spectacle of Power certainly demands participation only in its own terms. Tirres takes this as so self-evident that he cites Cisneros’ (1992) claim that if you “want spiritual, the real spirit of [San Antonio], I’ll show you. Go to San Fernando Cathedral” (qtd. In Tirres, 14). Tirres later repeats, “By most accounts, San Fernando Cathedral is San Antonio’s spiritual center, its ‘soul of the city’” (20).

Where do atheists, Muslims (even Jews) play into the ritual’s public display of power or the discourse that by most (Christian) accounts reckons San Fernando Cathedral as the ‘soul of the city’?

But this principled social element aside, even within the context of the ritual itself Tirres shows evidence that the categories of “us” and “them” do not collapse but, in fact, get reinforced. We see this most obviously in the presence of Roman troops who put the hero to death,[7] but Tirres even provides an instance where “an older lady was so upset that she threw a punch at a nearby Roman soldier who was whipping and prodding Jesus along the road to Calvary. ‘¡Ya basta!,’ she screamed at the bewildered actor” (37). Rather bizarrely, Tirres then immediately transitions from this anecdote, where “us” and “them” stand clearly still in stark relief, and starts discussing how “the aesthetics of ritual moves toward the ethical … when ritual experience collapses the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (37).

If we take his report at face value, then the ethical change here involves the encouragement of violence toward those who oppose the Christian ideal (whether “literally” in the person of Yeshua bin Yusuf or figuratively in the social body of the community of believers). I could only wish, at the moment when this woman threw her punch, that the actor playing Jesus had handed his cross to a soldier or bystander at that moment and reminded the woman to love her neighbour or to pray for her enemies, and then embraced the soldier before carrying on. In that, we would see something more like support for the form of the ethical Tirres claims this ritual supports.

Tirres closes with a rather self-congratulatory sort of disclaimer. Noting that “rituals are complex, contested, and messy” (40) he also declares, “It is not only the interpreter’s job to risk an interpretation of what these shared elements [of ritual] are, but more immediately, it is also the pastoral agent’s duty to inspire and encourage ritual participants to grow as individuals and as a community through ritual” (41).

While these might offer pertinent observations, we may note also how the weight of authority in this claim lands squarely (and only) on the experts who organise the event and the expert (Tirres) who interprets the events for us in a particular way. By contrast, we may recall, in this kind of context, Suttner’s (2005)[8] description of intellectuals: those “who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world” (Suttner, 2005, 130). By this distinction, we should see that the intellectual and the academic do not necessarily always overlap (though the academic may insist otherwise). From history we see that sometimes very non-scholarly or uneducated individuals have very ably performed the kind of intellectual function Suttner describes (i.e., to articulate a coherent account of the world for those in a particular class or nationally oppressed position who had not previously seen the world in that way), while many in academia fail completely in this task (because their work lacks any such solidarity or, worse, serves principally to reinforce the already dominant paradigm of the ruling class). Suttner continues:

[intellectuals] should be defined by the role they play, by the relationships they have to others. They are people who, broadly speaking, create for a class or people … a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy. Intellectuals are crucial to the process through which a major new culture, representing the world-view of an emerging class or people, comes into being. It is intellectuals who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world (see Gramsci 1971[9]: 418; Crehan 2002[10]: 129–30).

In a letter of 1931 Gramsci says his definition of an intellectual ‘is much broader than the usual concept of “the greater intellectuals”’ (1979: 204). In his Prison Notebooks, he writes:

What are the ‘maximum’ limits of acceptance of the term ‘intellectual;” Can one find a unitary criterion to characterise equally all the diverse and disparate activities of intellectuals and to distinguish these at the same time and in an essential way from the activities of other social groupings? The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations (1971: 8. emphasis added).

In the same way a worker is not characterized by the manual or instrumental work that he or she carries out, but by ‘performing this work in specific conditions and in specific social relations’ (117–8).

It remains an open question whether Tirres embodies an intellectual or an academic, though at present the weight of evidence falls more toward the latter already. His narrow interest in solving the “problem” of integral liberation theology, especially as he sees a necessary step in this in reconstructing Dewey’s religious philosophy, does not point to giving a coherent account of a historically oppressed people’s position. Moreover, while invoking the voiceless as a subject of his discourse, he gives the names of those in authority while leaving nameless—unworthy of specific recognition—women involved in the project he describes. He relies upon the authority of his own interpretive lens—assuring us that this amounts to a necessary step—without counterbalancing his monologic authority with other voices, except those he elects to include. The fact that he at one point confesses to a (temporary) misunderstanding of the ritual he witnesses also throws his report into question. And, of course, his pedigree as a Catholic that he starts the chapter with marks him (and his interpretive framework) as valid vis-à-vis Catholic ritual but invalid vis-à-vis those individuals who do not share his Catholic commitments.

This comes across most plainly when he claims, apparently in all seriousness, that this spectacular display of Catholic power in San Antonio has a main purpose of collapsing the distinction between “us” and “them”. A more minor version of this glaring lapse arises also when we consider the “us” of academic theologians in general versus the “them” of an affected laity, but also that disparity of “us” and “them” that Tirres hopes to bridge in his work, between US and South American Latino/a liberation theologians.

Whatever dialogue Tirres claims to set up, it (of necessity) represents a monologue conducted by one authoritative speaking voice (his own) and the representation he constructs of any would-be dialogist (South American liberation theologians, competing US Latino/a liberation theologians, the Vatican, or anyone else, &c). This problem of representation arises continually in all work, and it falls upon the scholar (that is: the consensus holds it a standard part of scholarly procedure) to fairly and accurately represent the voice of the Other as much as possible.[11] Nonetheless, in a context of liberation theology, where the representation of the voiceless takes centre stage as one of the most fundamental problems in the first place, this conventional scholarly accession to representing the Other becomes garishly problematic. The suppression of a woman’s name and her actual words go from an arguably harmless error in other contexts to a red flag about the sincerity or self-awareness of Tirres’ project. Similarly, his disclaimer above about a plurality of interpretations, again a harmless error in many contexts, resonates with authoritarianism here, all the more when he offers an apologetics for his duty to provide an interpretation. Or, again, his opening autobiographical account, which positions him in some ways as especially intimately and personally connected to the performance of passion plays (his uncle played Jesus), shifts not so subtly from a sort of ethnographic acknowledgment of his position to something more like a claim to especial insight around the Good Friday liturgies—a claim bolstered, of course, by his academic pedigree at Princeton and Harvard as well.

Reading his description of the Good Friday liturgies, two things especially stand out to me. Not in any particular order, first he discloses to us that he had special access to the event organisers. Like a backstage VIP, his displays his privileged access to the planning, rationale, and deployment of the Good Friday liturgies. In this context, he names and quotes these movers and shakers, while leaving nameless some woman who merely “is a long-time cast member of the via crucis”.

Second, in his more or less experiential spectatorship of the rituals themselves, a strong sense of spiritual tourism comes across. Despite his privileged access to the event planners, he nevertheless gets fooled by some of the tropes the organisers devise to create greater immediacy in the participants. Not, of course, that an ethnographer should loser herself while witnessing a “native performance,” but a key part of Tirres’ authority rests on his intimate connect with the events depicted. It seems as if he experiences the Good Friday liturgy not simply in small surprising details (such as that noted above) but overall—as if the immediacy and relevance of the Passion Play itself for the first time (as an adult) drove itself home to him all over again. Thus, he seems to “discover” a solution to the problem of a modern lack of faith in this cleverly contrived theatrical fiction.

But if the ritual succeeds in re-galvanising his own “marriage” of the aesthetic and ethical, should we understand this as the ritual function for most of the participants. For those who already live, for the most part, no disjunction between the aesthetic and the ethical, they have no need for such “integration”. For the woman who threw a punch at the “Roman soldier,” it appears she has already thoroughly integrated the aesthetic and ethical, to such a degree that she violates the expectations of the bewildered actor playing the soldier. And if this thrown punch signals at least one kind of integration of the aesthetic and the ethical, then Tirres should answer how this kind of violence will not generally result from the project he advances. We can say the woman gets it wrong, just like those people who would scream at Joan Collins because of a character she played on TV. Much as we might agree this amounts to a “wrong” response, it nevertheless shows itself as an response and one that Tirres fails to take seriously.[12]

Of course, we can pay a sort of easy lip service to values that contradict such violence on the part of this ritual participant, but facile disclaimers don’t get us toward actually ensuring that we compose rituals that inhibit, rather than exacerbate, a tendency to violence.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Eliade, M. (2005). The myth of the eternal return: Cosmos and history (Vol. 46): Princeton University Press

[4] Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)

[5] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=false”>here

[6] One may find any number of objections to this text, not the least of which how it embodies anthropological work prior to the self-conscious turn that the discipline of anthropology has so thoughtfully and extensively explored. Like much (British) work from this era, it typically happens that the (empirically) observed data—keeping in mind the question of what an anthropologist even notices in the first place—tends to retain its validity even when the interpretive scheme to analyse that data reeks of imperialism, racism, sexism, orientalism, and so forth.

[7] Traditions do exist at passions plays that do emphasize one’s role as a Roman in the execution of Yeshua bin Yusuf. Such “guilt trips” may have transformative (ethical) implications as well, but Tirres elects not to draw attention to these traditions.

[8] Suttner, R. (2005). The character and formation of intellectuals within the ANC-led South African liberation movement in T. Mkandawire (ed.) African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender and development, pp. 117–54. London: Zed.

[9] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, eds.) London: Lawrence and Wishart (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[10] Crehan, K. (2002). Gramsci, culture and anthropology, London: Pluto Press (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[11] Why one must or should resort to an expository format that requires this kind of representation, rather than arranging a more literally dialogic form of book, suggests its own line of analysis.

[12] We may offer a nasty explanation for this in that the “us” and “them” of this ritual sees no problem of such violence. That the faithful should physically attack, if not kill, the infidel represents a perfectly acceptable outcome.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Perhaps a very subtle condemnation of museums as institutions, which makes a lovely irony if a museum (the Louvre) essentially commissioned it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: E. Bilal’s (2014)[2] Phantoms of the Louvre

I have much less to say about this book than I wanted to. Since Bilal has proven himself one of the most reliable graphic novelists I have encountered—amongst his works I’ve acquired, his (1992)[3] Nikopol Trilogy, though perhaps his most famous piece, pales next to (1984)[4] The Hunting Party and (1998)[5] The Dormant Beast—I squeaked with delight when I saw this book on the shelf.

Unfortunately, this amounts to merely a plump piece for some kind of special event for the Louvre. As a sort of “completest” gesture that includes a series of 22 phantoms, it resembles Dali’s (1985)[6] “tarot deck,” which features little if any interesting original work and simply rehashes stuff already done; ditto with Giger’s (1994)[7] tarot deck as well.

Each various photograph of some piece in the Louvre then gets a phantom painted over it and an biographical blurb about this imagined phantom. Whatever blend of fact, fiction, and fantasy Bilal concocts—da Vinci, for instance, turns out to have a hankering after hi male models—none of the narratives accumulate into anything. Each stands quite alone, in stark contrast (for instance) to how Sergio Toppi in his phenomenal and gorgeous (2012)[8] Sharaz-De arranges (or actually composes anew) a sequence of stories that builds and accumulates in meaning. The only two things any of Bilal’s narratives have in common: (1) each ghost attaches to some aspect of the Louvre (sometimes a room or space in the Louvre and not a piece that has wound up there), and (2) most of the time the phantom has a literal artistic link to the piece in question, either being a model in the painting or somehow an artist who contributed to the piece.

In as much as the pieces selected range over a very wide swatch of human history geographically and temporally, Bilal does provide a very internationally diverse selection of ghosts. It suggests the same kind of gesture Wim Wenders aimed for by internationalizing his casts to a vast degree and incorporating multiple languages into his film—an attempt to capture the (literally) cosmopolitan nature of European life. Bilal comes to a necessity of ethnic multiplicity by a less urbane manner, but his work too shows the (often more tense) intersection of large numbers of people from different countries, particularly in The Hunting Party. So perhaps this element tempted him to say yes to the Louvre’s project, painting a sort of “human ark” in a way that points—though I don’t think deliberately or intentionally—at Sokurov’s (2003)[9] Russian Ark.

But whatever the case, Bilal expends very little effort on the art. Perhaps, at some abstract level, he sees the human face or head he appends on top of the Louvre original as a kind of dialogue (with the piece), but just as the specific biographies seem disconnected from one another (however witty at times), very little of any of the phantoms have any captivating aesthetic interest—at least not relative to other work by Bilal.

Ultimately, this looks like he recognized a good opportunity for self-promotion, and he tossed off the minimum required by the project to get it out the door.

One possibly interesting wrinkle, however. To the extent that Bilal starts with photographs of extant pieces in the Louvre, one may say he then defaces them, though “deface” makes for an ironic verb, since he covers over the original partially with the phantom’s face. We might consider this work as a piece of covert (but out in the open) vandalism.

In his brief introduction, Bilal addresses the fact that (simply for reasons of space) some ultra-famous pieces in the Louvre got left out.[10] Of these otherwise unnamed ultra-famous pieces, the Mona Lisa does not get left out. And I have to add, for two of the pieces, Bilal selects architectural elements of the Louvre.

Let me draw some of the strands for this “case” together. Unable to include all of the ultra-famous pieces, Bilal nonetheless “sacrifices” two of his twenty-two narratives to architectural features of the Louvre. And of the ultra-famous pieces left out, the most ultra-famous piece of all does not get left out.

As a plump piece for the Louvre, one might imagine a line item in Bilal’s contract that specifically prohibits him from excluding the Mona Lisa no matter how much he wants to. But, on the other hand, if one were to decide what ultra-famous piece to leave out—as an artistic kind of statement—then the Mona Lisa certainly tops that list.[11] So, the presence of the Mona Lisa in this book seems like a sort of glaring inclusion, and to this one may add Bilal’s enthusiastic expansion of the miasma of homosexuality surrounding da Vinci. Depending upon how up on scholarship the reader, candidly parading da Vinci around as a sodomite might well read to many as a (deliberate and perverse) defacement of one of the loftiest figures of Occidental art history we have.

But we could take this gesture as a kind of key for looking at the whole book generally. One might imagine a certain kind of dudgeon, that Bilal (virtually a rock star in France as an artist) should get asked to participate in a project to promote the Louvre when none of his own work hangs there. Add to this a kind of glass-ceiling effect, since Bilal does not come from France originally—so this becomes as “close” to the Louvre as the gatekeepers will allow this admittedly celebrated barbarian. As such, the slap-dash work—below Bilal’s usual richness and detail (hobbled all the more by the “absurd” constraint, either self-imposed or imposed upon him by the project’s handlers)—again marks a literal defacement of these ”monuments of civilization”. So much so that Bilal declines to included 22 works in the Louvre and spends two of his pieces on architectural features of the Louvre (however attractive or not).

Moreover, in his selection of pieces and ghosts, Bilal goes out of his way to amplify or deface the canon of Europe—amongst the famous names of painters (Delacroix, Dürer, Rembrandt, &c) his ghosts range over countries and entities (and histories) not necessarily well-represented in the Louvre. Here, the slap-dash work (again) shows contempt for, and offers an implicit critic, of a canon that has (1) helped starve any number of artists but almost, much more pointedly (2) provided the “evidence” of Occidental civilization that has travelled the globe and slaughtered people either deemed not aesthetic enough or only as aesthetic as their eroticizing or orientalising gazers deemed them.

Similarly, behind all of these “lofty works of art,” Bilal’s biographies pull the curtain back on the performance, so to speak, and show us the nitty and the gritty, the skirts and the dirt, involved in the lofty production of such art: the exploitation (sexual and financial) of poor models, the tawdry involvements of supposedly great minds, the Nazi sympathies of at least one phantom in the Louvre. Nothing of this sort of scandal ever topples one of the Immortals, at least not with the passage of a century or five. No one thinks of the Vitruvian man as possible porn anymore, &c. And the messiness Bilal lays out in these fictional (or fictionalized) pseudo-biographies doesn’t puncture or demean the loftiness of the pieces, though not because the gesture comprises something other than a kind of defacement.

Still, having said all of this, if the book doesn’t stand as merely a half-assed toss-off because the Louvre pays well, then it runs the immemorial peril of trying to elevate the banal; i.e., the book might aim to make “boring” or “dull” or “non-engaging” into an interesting theme. Always tricky to do, and rarely a success, and even less rarely on purpose with malice aforethought.[12] Little gives one reason to pay attention to Bilal’s contributions here, even in the various decisions as to how he will (or did) photograph the piece that serves as a jumping off for each. And because the phantoms, much like the paintings in the Louvre, have no necessary connection to one another, but just happen to hang next to something on the wall, the “total effect” (both of the museum, the book, and the phantoms) winds up mostly absent.

This, again, illuminates a critique of the Occidental canon as a disparately non-meaningful heap. One visits the museum of Bilal’s book and you come away with a hollow feeling, of having basically wasted time, although you got a chuckle out of a given piece or two. This has next to nothing to do with the inherent aesthetic merit of any given piece (or the affective merit of any give phantom’s biography) and everything to do with the vacuity and emptiness of the gesture of a museum in the first place.

By contrast, whatever conceit a library might make or not make toward some degree of completeness in its collection, it does not especially pretend that one’s primary activity inside of it amounts to wandering and browsing. Even if you go with some vague notion to “check out a book” (though you don’t know which one, this differs fundamentally from a museum, where a picture says a thousand words and each piece (on the wall, behind glass) imposes its presence on you, so to speak, and demands you look at and take account of it.

Thus Bilal’s book similarly points up the hollowness of the museum as a gesture, without necessarily casting aspersions on the content of the pieces (or the quality of writing for the phantoms’ biographies) themselves. The seeming laziness of Bilal’s contribution makes for the sort of necessary gesture in order to openly covertly mock the Louvre (and all museums) as an institution, as it were.

I think one may say that Bilal has included enough markers in his book to warrant this kind of reading. The pretentiousness of the Louvre, the supposed compliment of being invited to participate in promoting it when the museum would never include your work on the walls—or, worse, they will include the pieces Bilal did for this book and so his presence on the walls serves only as an advertisement—the various gestures of defacement, both literal and in accord with the traditions of art history, and very aspects of Bilal’s own autobiography and creative thematics all permit a conclusion that he has flagrantly snubbed the Louvre. In this respect, he appears as the twenty-third phantom of the Louvre, the invisible figure who either creates or stand tangentially related to a piece of art.

Unfortunately, this still leaves the book only more interesting to think about than read, but perhaps the Louvre suffers the same fate. One can get more out of it by thinking about it, rather than going there, so to speak. Again, this says nothing about the specific, often aesthetically profound experience of standing in front of some work of art. Rather, it points to the sum experience of going—the phenomenologically bizarre, inappropriate, and anachronistic experience of going from a three thousand year old bronze helmet to a painting by some anonymous Dutchman, &c.

Bilal also parodies the museum experience in that he provides more text than image. More precisely, each painting begins with a black page and the phantom’s name along with various witty variations on basic birth information; the next page overlays Bilal’s image on whatever original he defaces. And then the next panel presents a smaller version of the original, with its own conventional “vital statistics” (and provenance). Beside this miniature with its pedigree, Bilal provides a whole page of phantom biography, with preliminary sketch version of the phantom on the page.

Over and over and over Bilal repeats this formula, also to the point of too much familiarity and boredom, just as happens in museums. But he has tampered with the proportions, because not only do the vital statistics for the paintings run at least as large as the small-reproduced original, the phantom’s biography totally dominate the page, suggesting the bloatedness of art history scholarship that typically occupies a greater (explanatory) space than the painting itself. As if the original cannot, in fact, stand on its own, but must come with this intense degree of apparatus to keep it propped up, or at least to intimidate the viewer into accepting someone else’s designation that this, friends, comprises an immortal masterpiece.

Not to suggest that all art history scholarship should get thrown out, that no work of Occidental art (included in the Louvre or not) offers little more than dreck, or that viewers can’t have profound aesthetic experiences in museums—I only suggest that Bilal may have broad-stroked a criticism of the pretentious of museums (and the Louvre in general) in its conceits to curate such scholarship or works of art, or provide the opportunity to encounter profound works.

If Bilal’s book “fails,” it does so because the format of the museum as a totality does not do and cannot do what it claims to. But whether Bilal did this deliberately or simply accidentally as a consequence of working in a museum in the first place, like a museum, he still gets paid when people stroll through (his pages).


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Bilal, E. (2014). Phantoms of the Louvre: NBM Publishing, 1–144.

[3] Bilal, E. (2005). La trilogie Nikopol: Casterman

[4] Bilal, E., & Christin, P. (1990). The hunting party: Catalan Communications

[5] Bilal, E. (1998). The dormant beast. Humanoids Publishing.

[6] Pollack, R., & Dalí, S. (1985). Salvador Dali’s tarot: Michael Joseph

[7] Akron, Giger, H., Designer, M., Giger, H., Designer, P., & Giger, H. (1994). Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt: Urania-Verlags-AG

[8] Toppi, S (2012). Sharaz-de: tales from the Arabian Nights. Fort Lee, NJ: Archaia

[9] Sokurov, A., Deryabin, A., Meure, J., & Stöter, K. (2003). Russian ark: Artificial Eye.

[10] He specifically excuses his choices by saying he only painted the phantoms that appeared to him. Not all pieces have phantoms, and some of the phantoms of the most famous pieces, he says, turned out very pedestrian bores, not worth painting.

[11] This elision might resemble that moment when two famous artists—I’ve forgotten their names—went to the Louvre to view the empty place where the Mona Lisa had been stolen from.

[12] Robbe-Grillet’s (1957) Jealousy may offer a successful example.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: M. deForge’s (2014)[2] Ant Colony

Imagine the love child of Jim Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals and Anders Nilsen’s (2011)[4] Big Questions, and you will land somewhere in the vicinity of this book. [5] Include the change from mammals (and avians) to insects.

If you surf to the New Yorker’s review of the book, then you will see in the pictures selected what I would call a standard response to deForge’s book. Unlike many minimalist type of texts, deForge occasionally bursts out with very large-scale pieces, especially when the story calls for them; for example, in the massive battle between the red ants and the black, which has the kind of scope of varied detail familiar in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or even simply in the depiction of the many charred bodies after the magnifying glass burns many to death. Similarly, at the review, you will see the striking (first) image deForge supplies for the ant colony’s queen, who also over time experiences a process of decay equally strikingly drawn.

I say this marks a standard response to the text, because these occasional lapses into grandeur stand out and seem to suggest the work consists of something more than doodling., But doodling often forms a main impression. The “larger” pieces establish deForge’s credibility as a craftsman and this credibility will (or may then) bleed over to suggest an equal scope of grandeur to the book generally. Nonetheless, it also keeps lapsing back to the sub-banal in a way that negates this impression; by sub-banal I mean the impression of something less than an intentional depiction of banality by deForge.

From the review, we may read something of his aesthetic sense:

“I like writing stories where the characters can only see the edges of their world,” says Michael DeForge, a twenty-seven-year-old cartoonist based in Toronto, about his just published first graphic novel, “Ant Colony.” “I want to show characters who don’t have much agency—or who don’t feel they have very much agency over their lives.” DeForge continues,

I want them to feel that forces of nature or society are sweeping them up in things. And I found that ants are a pretty perfect way to wring jokes out of that (¶1–2).

Those who’ve read enough of my blog may already anticipate I will go bat-shit all over again at authors who think we could or should “wring jokes” out of people destroyed (or buffeted) by the impersonal forces of history, &c. In my last book reply, to Stechschulte’s (2014)[6] multiply inept The Amateurs, he resorted to cheap stereotypes about “poor white trash” to “wring jokes” out of human misfortune. deForge at least avoids this obvious trope while still falling prey to the same inexcusable gesture.

First off, I would certainly appreciate it if fewer (white) males decided to take up this nihilistic position of scoffing at the stupidity of the human condition. Importantly, the back of the book suggests that the ants exhibit bigoted attitudes. This seems incorrect—at least, compared to the clear and unambiguous ignorance and stupidity of the “poor white trash” in Stechschulte’s book, the ants here don’t have anything so unambiguously ignorant.

This matters, because apparently the ad-text writer believes that deForge has “targeted” (human) stupidity in his book. This makes for the same kind of starting point as Stechschulte’s book and thus, in the same way, falls prey to the same sort of assumed superiority (either taken up by the author or granted as a possibility to the reader). In Stechschulte’s book, the text permits us to “laugh at the idiots”; deForge’s book similarly positions us, though nowhere near so unambiguously as the book jacket would suggest.

Even so, whatever the thematic mis-deployments in Stechschulte’s book, he does not give us the implicit contradiction deForge does when he writes narratives of people with little agency from the position of a god-author who has all of the agency in generating the text. I would expect that deForge may tell us his process of creation played out in an involuntary way—that he, like his characters—found himself at the mercy of unknown forces—but unfortunately this “excuse” doesn’t wash. Unless you do automatic writings (or something like it), then claims of “helplessness” in the process of artistic creation do not stand up to scrutiny.

Of course, an artist may incorporate aleatoric (chance) elements into her work, may incorporate process of channelling or unconscious gestures, and the like, but to the extent that one reworks this “found” material the more the helplessness as claimed drops away. Similarly, the less that one reworks the material, the less such work warrants the designation “art”.

Saying this, I recall my friend accusing me of resorting too much to absolutes. And of course we may split hairs until the end of time about the creative process and to what extent “unwilled” versus “willed” elements of a work legitimately contribute to a work, and what admixture (if any) suffices to deem a piece an actual piece of art—if we even decide that fussing over the matter matters socially. In this respect, we might remember, while trying to grapple with the complexity of this, that Ginsburg offered his notorious (and often abused) maxim “first thought, best thought” (as a statement that seems to promote calling whatever springs to one’s mind “art”) in a wider context where meditative openness to a (more) enlightened state of mind formed a prerequisite to gaining access to those “first thoughts”; in other words, the “first thought” issued (so the conceit runs) not from the limited selfish human ego but from the higher Self. Whether or not one takes this notion seriously, one certainly can’t accuse Ginsburg of saying “just write down the first thing that pops into your mind and call it Art.”

In this case, one cannot speak of an “involuntary” process. The conceit insists that the higher Self actually wills the “first thought”. Any “helplessness” involved impinges on or devolves only to the limited ego. BY this method, our (small) self “stumbles” across an oracular truth, which arise whole cloth from the beyond, in the manner of billions upon billions of human utterances (artistic or otherwise) over the centuries. Similarly, one often “involuntarily” finds imagery inhabiting one’s imagination, imagery that pops up seemingly out of nowhere, and which we then can only try our best to translate it onto the page, accurately or not.

But, again, precisely this re-working stands as the part quite the opposite of “helpless”. It would take probably thousands of pages of distinctions to try to nail down the exact difference between the sense data that appears to us from the “real world” apart from “imaginative imagery” that occurs to us and “linguistic descriptions” of both types. For now, we can say simply that all of these types of experiences (of “real world” imagery, of imaginative imagery or dreams, and verbal phrases that describe them or exist on their own) present themselves to our consciousness as a piece of data and experience that we then have the opportunity to work with. I look outside and see a green tree; I have no more say over that “fact” than anything else, and if I insist that I “have no choice” but to draw that green tree simply because it presents it to me, then this serves not as a proof of my helpless but rather of my laziness and a sign that I opt out of my responsibility (as an artist, as a human being) at that moment to take responsibility for whatever reworking I do.

In this light, “realism”—which no shortage of critics and authors have called out rightly as simply nothing but a set of conventions—shows itself as a lazy lie frequently resorted to by lazy artists. More precisely, “realism” offers a kind of argument for aesthetic (artistic) veracity, and one that a given current society accepts. For critics of that society, “realism” may serve a protective function. In Defoe’s Moll Flanders, sometimes called the first novel in English, he goes to considerable length to justify depicting the graphic details of his heroine’s former life of prostitution. He does so, wrapping the whole project in at least a stated intention of showing her moral rehabilitation, because “realism” demands he not misrepresent her chequered past. Later authors of the era frequently resorted to the conceit of “found letters” as a way to justify the publication of (fictional) lies in an era when moral vigilance had gotten pitched up to an almost painful degree. Once again, the claim to have to show “the world as it is” (in order to make a moral case of one sort or another in fiction) demanded a claim of “realism”. The veer toward (later) theatrical “naturalism” rather boneheadedly took this concept literally, but even naturalism could never completely drop the fact that art imposes a demand for some variety conventionalism. In other words, even absolute naturalism comes with conventions, no matter if the author tries to ignore them or not. One sees this even in pieces like Warhol’s (1964) Empire and (1963) Sleep, which try to bring conventionalism to an absolute minimum by simply pointing the camera at the event recorded. But even at this super-minimum level, we still have the convention of a camera angle and the duration of a shot, &c. I would add also that where Warhol tremendously wastes our time without evading conventionality (if he had that intention), Cage’s (1952) justly famous 4’33” maximally and covertly leverages the conventionality of music to make a similar point, but much more economically and interestingly.

Of course, this ineradicable presence of “convention” does not mean, of course, that the convention never changes or cannot.

Similarly, if we zero in more on the process of artistic creation as it emerges in theatrical performance, we can ask pertinently whether, at the moment of delivery, to what extent that delivery seems “voluntary” or “involuntary”, seems “rehearsed” or “spontaneous”. I don’t propose to try to answer this here but—with my friend’s accusations of absolutism in the back of my head—I simply point to the fact that we can find lots of places to raise the question. For the literary or graphic artist, the question of “deliberate” or “improvised” arises exactly at the moment of putting the pen to the page.

So I don’t pretend that aesthetic creation occurs in some fantasyland of absolute control bereft of any accident. But this level of creation stands a far cry from the sorts of moments of choice the author does, in fact, have control over. Dostoevsky (just to give one example) famously describes how his characters would “get away from him”. Those who role-play similarly know how characters may often follow unexpected courses of action, such that we feel obligated to respect the integrity of the character by not wilfully making them do something they “wouldn’t do”. (More precisely, we should say that we won’t force them to do something that runs contrary to our present conception of them as a character.)

Certainly, this piece of non-accountability on the part of artists (I’ve resorted to it myself) does not mean we must take it seriously on its face. I also wonder if Shakespeare or Marlowe ever had this problem or if it only starts to appear in a post-Rousseau world (so to speak) after the “”invention of identity” in the sense we like to call modern.

However, any such claim amounts to a claim for representational veracity, i.e., that I simply present the character as it presents itself to me, just as Beckett excuses himself at points when asked to interpret his work. And this, like the claim of “realism” that protects authors from condemnation for presenting certain unsavoury “truths” about the social order in the presence of the Power that enforces that social order, the claim simply to (helplessly) represent the character as it presents itself seems a means to avoid criticism on the part of the author—a more sophisticated version of the “it was a joke” phrase people will resort to to try to get out of being held accountable for saying something shitty.

Whatever the case, authorial “helplessness” about character doesn’t generally have its analogy at the level of plot. Authors may try to excuse character elements of their work (for good reasons or not—Rabelais avoided being burnt at the stake for insisting his characters were satires, not soothsayers), but we much less frequently hear claims, “I can only tell the story as it happened.” We may hear this more often where biographies (or autobiographies) occur—or similar genres like memoirs, fictional or otherwise—but in particular where a work of fiction doesn’t claim to tell a non-fictional tale, then the argument of helplessly having to tell the story this way usually doesn’t come up, and when it does, it doesn’t sound too credible.

So any lack of agency deForge might try to claim—and he seems to want to describe the book as gradually emerging out of no intention initially to write a book—any such claim echoes hollowly. In any case, we may still wonder how he orients himself to his characters with limited agency. Does he sympathize, because he imagines himself in the same boat (as far as the composition of his work goes)? Or does he, like Stechschulte, take an essentially cruel attitude toward what he depicts and actually serves as the (divine) agency that inflicts helplessness and ignorance on his characters—and then parades them around in that condition as if it embodies “the condition of the world”?

When you drive a car, everyone assumes you have a sufficient control of the car to drive it safely. Accidents happen, yes, and determining (in the wake of one) whether one actually had an accident or if someone acted negligently becomes an important part of the investigation. If you don’t have sufficient control to drive it safely, then any avoidance of an accident amounts to sheer luck but most people, knowing that the case, would insist you stop driving—as some do in the face of hopelessly drunk would-be drivers.

This holding in a clear and unambiguous example, I see no reason especially to pretend that we should laud artists who actually lack competence to remain adequately in control of the car of their art. The argument by helplessness (or lack of agency as an artist) simply doesn’t wash. All the more so because an artist stands as uniquely positioned to actually stipulate the facts of the world created, however “bound” by “realism” or not. While everything we do finds itself necessarily constrained by all kinds of factors, the occasion of artistic creation, all else being equal, provides the opportunity for the least constraint, i.e., by definition provides an occasion where one may suspend the “usual” constraints to a virtually maximal degree.

To renege on that opportunity simply denotes laziness, ignorance, or (most sympathetically) inability. Delany (1977)[7] makes a similar point, when he observes that so-called naturalistic fiction actually comprises a sub-genre science fiction, i.e., a parallel universe story where the main difference between there and here appears in the presence of the characters in the book’s “our” world (or, alternatively, the absence of those characters in our real world). To fail to utilize the opportunities science fiction affords—to simply devolve to trivial stories about rockets and robots, as Lem so often points out—represents nothing “natural” in faction but, rather, again, a piece of ignorance, laziness, or inability on the author’s part.

So, when deForge says he likes “writing stories where the characters can only see the edges of their world” or wanting “them to feel that forces of nature or society are sweeping them up in things”—notice that this expressly describes a desire on deForge’s part rather than any “naturalistic” claim that such stories need telling—then what he means, in practice at least, involves wanting to depict characters cruelly lorded over “by reality” (i.e., the author).

Politically, why do we need stories that aspire to normalise disenfranchisement. Putting it this way, it becomes no surprise that an organ of oppression like The New Yorker would review it.

Again, deForge does not claim to depict the human (or ant) condition but simply wants to show characters in mentally and circumstantially hobbled situations. This immediately reminds me of Lem’s (1971)[8] “Non Serviam” (i.e., “I will not serve”), which consists of a series of dialogues by elements within a computer program, who try to work out their existential condition. While boiling down to a blistering refutation of the premises behind Christian theodicy, the point as far as deForge’s book goes concerns how Lem uses a similar situation—of individuals in highly constrained situations of knowledge and agency—to criticise the imposition of that condition upon them. deForge, by contrast, does not just indulge in the creation of the situation, he never once permits his characters to inquire about the justice of it.

So, not only does he put the characters in an untenable situation—a condition of limited knowledge and agency that we all might to one degree or another identify with—he also strips them of their capacity to wonder why this has happened, and then he simply subjects them to a random barrage of experiences—again, without substantially or materially giving any a real space to try to make sense of their experience.

This amounts to laughing at mentally retarded people, and the metaphor of ants only makes the attempt to “wring humor” out of the scenario that much more dismal. Not point, because this gesture very much participates in the general shift that declares all social (political) action pointless and encourages people, more and more, to refer to nothing but themselves and their narrow (self-serving) desires as a criterion for acting. We have, then, the tragedy of the commons in one of its ugliest guises enthusiastically at work here.

And the fact that it reads as a “sign of the times” suggests no credit to deForge, whatever his talent as a draftsman, because to whatever extent he might claim simply to depict things “realistically,” this realism already amounts to a social construction designed generally to oppress, not liberate. deForge does not provide us an example where he has “spoken truth to power” and has to use “realism” to protect himself from censure, which (for example back in Rabelais’ day) might very literally mean burning to death at a stake. No, the “defence of realism” his work offers attempts to make him non-accountable for the narrative choices he made in laying the story out this way.

It means we may expect of him that he will line his pockets from his success and leave everyone else to die, although he may scatter an occasional crumb or two to the ants along the way. It means also we may browse his work and have some temporary wash of affect that satisfies or not but which, like masturbation, leaves us meh and disengaged from any constructive social action. Stechschulte’s failure seems minor, by contrast, not only because he reaches for less but also because of his lesser talent.

Wilson (1984)[9] has pithily defined criminality as simply “misdirected intelligence”. If so, then deForge’s work unfortunately embodies an entertaining but artistically criminal failure.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2]Deforge, M. (2014). Ant Colony. Drawn & Quarterly, 1–209.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[4] Nilsen, A. (2011). Big questions. Montréal, Quebec : Enfield: Drawn & Quarterly ; Publishers Group UK [distributor].

[5] Except that one finds much more explicitly a plot here (as compared generally to Woodring) and far more economically (than in Nilsen’’s unmotivatedly lengthy text). I put this remark in a footnote because people may want to argue that Congress of the Animals has a clear plot and that Nilsen’s unnecessarily lengthy book justifies that length. It matters less than simply to offer a comparison. Whatever one experiences as plot in Woodring’s book, here it seems likely most readers will sense “more” of a plot. And whatever Nilsen attempts to accomplish at his nearly 600 pages, deForge seems to get at with fewer.

[6] Stechschulte, C. (2014). The amateurs. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books.

[7] Delany, S. R. (1977). About 5,750 Words. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, 21-37

[8] Lem, S. (1971). Non Serviam,”. S. Lem, A Perfect Vacuum, trans. by M. Kandel (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979)

[9] Wilson, C. (1984). A criminal history of mankind: Granada.

Summary (TLDR Version)

The double consciousness W.E.B. duBois speaks of with respect to Black folk goes typically unacknowledged or simply missed by White folk.

Thus, when Hume said (I paraphrase), “It is uncertain if we have freewill, but it is absolutely certain that we must believe we do,” the double-consciousness (the doubled social consequence of this statement) goes missed. We most often hear the statement in individually empowering terms, to the extent that it establishes a ground for personal moral action, but rarely do we notice how it also serves to lay the groundwork for inescapable moral condemnations of others.

The forces and constraints in society—or culture, as the set of constraints on human behaviour within a society, subject to change by that society—call upon us to act in certain ways, and we either rise to the occasion and perform like Olivier or we get stage-fright and miss our cue. But in the meantime, we “read” those performers on the stage of social life not as the performers that culture has scripted but as free-acting agents (and we do so, generously, in the name of human dignity).

Nevertheless, this disconnect (between performance and agency) especially informs how White folks misread “criminal acts” by Black folks. Themselves made into puppets by the discourse that animates them, White folk condemn the character of Black criminality as a character flaw (rather than the performance of the role demanded of them by culture) and thus fail to indict their own hand in the authoring of the culture that wrote that criminality in the first place.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C. Stechschulte’s (2014)[2] The Amateurs

I have less to say about the context of this book than usual since Stechschulte lazily, ineptly, or too obscurely constructs its narrative. Opening on a Lovecraftianesque “I have seen a horror I hardly dare confess I believe” gesture, the style and content of the book then switches to a couple of amateur hicks, who may not (in fact) actually ever have been butchers, but now believe themselves to be. From time to time, the frame story returns, with no compelling or gotcha sense of connection to the main narrative, and it ends even more obscurely still with a hair-cutting ritual. I leave it to people more acculturated in the right way to offer credible reasons why Stechschulte smashes these two different narratives together.

The main body of the book consists of the gory and inept misadventures of a couple of amnesiacs hayseeds who try to run the butcher’s shop they find themselves in despite having no idea how.[3]

A friend of mine once expressed an interest in depicting the US figure of the yeoman, better known to most as the hick, hillbilly, hayseed, or (most widely these days) poor white trash. In conversation with him about this, I wound up writing likely one of my more outrageous plays (American Gothic Science Fiction), which attempted to cram as many garish “poor white trash” tropes into it while also exploding and exposing audience prejudices against these figures. I would only say that the ease with which we allow ourselves to slip into a kind of grotesque version of a Southern accent[4] whenever we need to signal that someone cuts the stupidest of figures stands already as a sign of almost invisible racism in US culture.

You might question why “racism” and not “classism”. In general, because “white” (as it exists in US Occidental culture at least) does not constitute only an element of “race” or “class”. As numerous waves of immigrants have demonstrated (from Irish to Italian to Jewish) “whiteness” does not rise or fall by skin colour. In Sartre’s (1965)[5] Antisemite and Jew, he reaches the conclusion that a Jew comprises whatever culture declares one to be; so too with white. Or again, as Finley (2010)[6] demonstrates in multiple ways, whether people living in the Chestnut Ridge region of West Virginia were deemed white or some category of non-white depended upon social knowledge of a person’s background and lineage rather than any visible evidence of “white” or “black”.

In this respect, I should mention that these mixed race descendants in West Virginia, many of whom could easily “pass” outside of the context of those who knew their grandparents and great-grandparents, would “read” to most bourgeois people as quintessential poor white trash. So the idea that when we speak of “poor white trash” we in fact speak of “white” in some putative “pure” sense does not hold water. However, one cannot also deny that most people who witness productions representing “poor white trash” ever think that such people have mixed blood in their veins.

Even so, as we see from any number of anthropological texts—e.g., Basso’s (1973)[7] or Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[8] text—where we get told that the “natives” recite the “nonsense” words to some song they no longer remember the meaning of (but they go on repeating the “magic phrase” nonetheless), we can certainly note how the sorts of associations we have for “poor white trash” (inbred, sexually profligate, uneducated, illiterate, superstitious, bestial, if not sub-human) line up almost perfectly with racist tropes about people of colour, and “slaves” in particular. This suggests that the sorts of pejorative terms arising from White distaste for the “low behaviour” of mixed (i.e., black) people in the earlier United States has gone into cultural usage now without our remembering what those words mean. We just go on repeating the “magical phrases” nonetheless, scoffing at the laughable, scandalous, disgusting traits of “poor white trash” without realizing we reprise an anti-Black (pro-slave mentality) sentiment while doing so.

I’d like to make clear. My objection to Stechschulte’s casual resort to an available cultural bigotry originates less from merely a knee-jerk response to it and more to how uninterestingly he uses it. Stereotypes—all the more so the more familiarly we know them—will often lack narrative interesting simply because they leave too little to the imagination for the reader (or viewer) to work with: just one more stupid hick, swishy queer, ditzy blond, &c.

Stereotypes—like folk tales, which embody the narrative version of what stereotypes embody at the level of character—have proven in deft hands extremely useful for crafting narratives. In Frye’s (1957)[9] Anatomy of Criticism, he asserts that literary originality in fact requires a return to the most conventional (or archetypal) roots of (a culture’s) literature; one may note, for instance, how suggestively a narrative begins to appear if someone proposes a story called “Snow White & the Eight Dwarves”. Maguire’s (1995)[10] Wicked and Stoppard’s (1967)[11] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead represent two very popular examples of this move but even a simple story told from the wolf’s point of view in “Red Riding Hood” would offer similar (stereotypical) narrative grist. From Stechschulte, however, his two bumblers—who bear some resemblance to Uncle Fester and Gomer Pyle[12]—give us nothing to work with, as they get bested by a cow and pig, &c.

So, my objection has at least as much of the aesthetic as the political sitting in it, but because the dominant discourse these days does not recognise very well (if at all) the social aspect of the aesthetic—i.e., that one either “likes” or “dislikes” a book gets taken as a merely personal opinion—one feels more pressed to point to the socio-political aspects of aesthetic work, as simply a way not to sound like we speak “only for ourselves”. However, what we “like” and what we “read” and how we “like” and “read” cannot so tidily get separated from the socio-politically milieu we live in.

Certainly, if Stechschulte’s sales suffer because his story bores people with its stereotypes that points to one aspect of the non-personal implicated in aesthetic work. But the part touching more on social justice issues involves how the book permits readers—at least those inclined to do so—to “laugh at the hayseeds”. Again, a key part of this participates in laughing at “people perceived as niggers” and especially the kind of (white) people whose forebears were so depraved as to intermix with “people perceived as niggers”. That this fact—that abusing “poor white trash” amounts to a racialised gestures—has disappeared into the murk of distance cultural memory in the United States or—in a manner similar to how physical actions in new-borns get habituated into the unconscious and then operate from there without thought—this gesture has become a literal intellectual cultural habit (available to everyone, but obviously most prevalent in middle- and upper-class pholks of any “race”) simply exposes how the “aesthetic” does in fact intersect critically with the “political”.

For me personally, I always hope a book[13] will both (as Horace suggests)[14] delight and instruct me. When it doesn’t, I look for why. Any sense of “offense” on my part certainly came later than the “oh for fuck’s sake” at the banal, boring, trivial, familiar stereotype of bumbling (white trash) hayseeds. Nor must all “bone-heads” bumble; Bill & Ted from Herek’s (1989)[15] and Hewitt’s (1991)[16] films have any number of relatively competent adventures (in part because their authors belie an obvious intelligence, just as Christina Applegate did playing the role of one of the ditziest blondes ever on Married with Children), and maybe it matters in this respect that Bill, Ted, and Kelly all represent (at root) emulable models of good White kids, as opposed to that deliberately “alien” looking scamp playing the banjo on the porch in Boorman’s (1972)[17] Deliverance. Most of all, remembering my friend’s observation for how readily and automatically we culturally permit ourselves to lampoon the “southern Yeoman” (i.e., “poor white trash”), I could not miss as I read this book how Stechschulte (someone who grew up and left rural Pennsylvania for the urban landscape of Baltimore) had leveraged that “automatic joke”. Or that the back of the book advertises it as “funny, often discomfiting”. Rob Clough, a comics critic, suggests that “Stechschulte just has an uncanny knack for merging the humor of awkwardness with bloody, visceral violence” (from here).

I separate (as much as I can) the work from the work’s reception, although frequently and awfully the fans of a work provide the best arguments against a work. Clough gives a serviceable summary of the (incoherent) plot, making various sorts of apologetics for it along the way. By which I mean, he describes certain plot points where other readers would “check out” of the narrative (i.e., give up on it), while not offering much in the way of reasons for why he “held on” (i.e., did not give up). Overall, he notes,

Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened. Were the two butchers also mass murderers who simply snapped one day and then repressed the memory of their butchery? Was the father of one of the butchers involved somehow, as the severed head of one of the butchers suggests? How did that head get decapitated? How did it stay alive? What happened to the two women that caused one of them to actively repress the memories of that day? Are the color breaks in the comic indicative of a psychotic breakdown or a memory flashback? Not knowing these details, while being treated to a book’s worth of crazy weirdness, is what makes this such a compelling read. Stechschulte’s lumpy, grotesque and cartoony art adds to both the creepiness and the laughs, as he creates drawings that are simultaneously funny and unsettling (¶4, from here).

I want to point out that Clough simply assumes that Stechschulte has left it up to the reader. Unless he has spoken to the author, we might also assume that Stechschulte feels he has perfectly clearly, obviously, and thoroughly laid out the story as he intends. On a cynical view of literature, one that has a lot of social cache these days, “common wisdom” advises writers to “keep it vague” because that way more buzz generates around a work as readers argue amongst themselves (in fora and Facebook) to establish “what happened” &c. To the extent that the advice “always leave them wanting more” often gets attributed to that arch-charlatan and promoter P.T. Barnum, we may immediately understand that this criterion for literature hinges on marketing not aesthetic creation. Moreover, no work of literature held up by cultures as worthy of immortality had to deliberately mutilate its sense-making in order to gain the eternal and recurring attention of that culture. One may find mysteries and obscurities in Goethe, Shakespeare, or Vyasa, but they didn’t go out of their way to gratuitously insert obscurity. More importantly, none of them would accept the notion that the reader has the preeminent or sole authority on “deciding what happened”.

Joyce “secretly explained” everything in Ulysses through Stuart, and Faulkner lied unabashedly in interviews about his own works without ever denying that he had an explicit idea about what his books meant. And in fact, in his case, since the very problem of “what history means” always appears in his books as a series of contested, inconsistent versions of history, his own “this is what I think it means today” kinds of answers follow explicitly and exactly from his literary impulses. He might agree that the reader has some authority in deciding “what happened” but only because we all do, and never as the sole authority.

In aesthetic terms, if “Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened,” then this lowers the value of his book but, again, Clough may err in declaring this. So in the same way, we may wonder if Stechschulte actually intends laughter as a “proper” response to the events in his book.

Again, over the years, humans have composed a few narratives. The massive body of works give evidence over and over of different sorts of (literary or aesthetic) gestures toward creating an effective and affective work. Intermixing different emotional registers offers one such, particular (here) the laughing gasp in the face of horror. Bakhtin (1981)[18] speaks of various types of laughter and I find often that people defend this nervous-hyena giggling—the hyena’s notorious laugh actually occurs when the critter feels nervous rather than “amused”—as unproblematic.

Perhaps, but such visceral, non-mediated laughter presupposes an identity of situation, i.e., an identification with the people in a depicted situation. If this kind of laughter will “justify” itself, it seems it must have this identification, otherwise it embodies a “laughing at” not a “laughing with”.

On the one hand, Stechschulte has placed the reader in a position somewhat similar to the two men; like them, we too have no idea “what happened yesterday”.[19] We can do this, despite the frame-feature of the story,[20] mostly because of its brevity but also because a frame explicitly intends to orient us to the event(s) about to occur. However, the reader likely fairly quickly separates from this identification early on, specifically in wondering if, in fact, these two really work as butchers. Arguably, this gets confirmed later, but not before the reader splits away from the identification.

This de-identification matters because it sets up whether we “laugh with” or “laugh at”. If we “other” the butchers, then their hayseed shenanigans no longer remain something we commiserate with, because we might suffer a similar fate, but rather become something to laugh at scornfully, from the superiority of our more intelligent, less “hick” and “inbred” stupidness. &c.

In fact, this seems Stechschulte’s intention. If he intends to not de-humanise the people he depicts (as stereotypes), then he very unwisely chose a conventional presentation of known stereotypes to try to tell that story. This sort of scoffing laughter directed at “poor white trash” (whether at the level of the author’s intention or at the level of the reader’s reception of it) does not at all participate in the sort of regenerative laughter Bakhtin describes. It exhibits a laughter symptomatic of reward-oriented hierarchies, where one finds consolation for one’s own tawdry and decrepit condition of misery within the status quo by belittling someone (perceived as) lesser.

This consolation roots deeply in racism, of course, and in part explains why, no matter how far along Black pholk come within our white supremacist culture, they do not get permitted an actual, solid footing for social status: because reward-oriented hierarchies, putting 99% of its inhabitants in an untenable position, requires anyone not in the 1% to build up their social status and ego[21] by degrading, mocking, or simply negatively comparing those perceived as beneath them. &c.

Whether Stechschulte intends this, Clough’s reading certainly emphasizes it. For laughter to serve as regenerative—or simply not socially baleful—the possibility of the events happening to you must exist. Otherwise, we simply have a self-congratulatory narrative that contrasts the “stupidity” of other people with one’s own knowledgeable and knowing superiority. In this respect, the supposed hilarity of Kafka’s fiction similarly participates, to its discredit.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Stechschulte, C. (2014). The amateurs. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 1–64.

[3] Even in this portion of the book Stechschulte commits uninteresting point-of-view blunders that mar whatever momentum or whatnot this portion of the narrative aims for, but I have no interest in dwelling on these mistakes, except to note the irony in a book called The Amateurs. Someone should work up some puns about back jobs, &c.

[4] Which Southern accent, one might ask, since (like an “English accent”) not just one exists.

[5] Sartre, J.-P. (1965). Anti-semite and Jew. New York, 97, 102.

[6] Finley, A. J. (2010). Founding Chestnut Ridge: The Origins of Central West Virginia’s Multiracial Community

[7] Basso, E. B. (1973). The Kalapalo indians of central Brazil (Vol. 56): Holt, Rinehart and Winston New York, i–xvii, 1–157.

[8] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=false”>here, pp. i–xxxv, 1–787.

[9] Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism: four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[10] Maguire, G. (2011). Wicked: Hachette UK

[11] Stoppard, T. (1967). Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead: a play in three acts: Samuel French, Inc.

[12] That Stechschulte names this character “Jim” helps connect even more this character to Gomer Pyle, played by the infamously drawly Jim Nabors.

[13] Any aesthetic work, in fact.

[14] From Horace’s epistles, he puts it (in Latin with an English translation; see here, for instance):

Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae; / aut simul aut iucunda et idonea dicere vitae. / Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis, ut cito dicta / percipant animi dociles teneantque fideles. / omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat. / ficta voluptatis causa sint proxima veris: / ne quodcumque velit poscat sibi fabula credi, / neu pransae Lamiae vivum puerum extrahat alvo.

Poetry wants to instruct or else to delight; / or, better still, to delight and instruct at once. / As for instruction, make it succinct, so the mind / can quickly seize on what’s being taught and hold it; / every superfluous word spills out of a full mind. / As for delight, in what you invent stay close / to actuality; your fable shouldn’t / feel free to ask your audience to credit / just anything whatsoever, no matter what: / produce no human babies from monsters’ bellies.

[15] Herek, S., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Carlin, G., Matheson, C., & Solomon, E. (2004). Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Momentum Pictures

[16] Hewitt, P., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Sadler, W., Ackland, J., & Carlin, G. (2004). Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: MGM Home Entertainment

[17] Boorman, J., Voight, J., Reynolds, B., Beatty, N., Cox, R., & Bros, W. (2007). Deliverance: Warner Bros. Pictures. For more on this, see also Bell, D. (2000). Eroticizing the rural. Philip, Richards; Watt, David & Shuttleton, Diane De-Centring Sexualities: Politics and Representations Beyond the Metropolis, 83-101.

[18] Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press.

[19] On this point, it seems to matter a lot for the narrative that the two men never really make any attempt to decipher “what happened yesterday” or (most of all) to ask if they really work as butchers. This makes for a problematic lapse in Stechschulte’s narrative. Either of the characters might easily have asked “Are we really butchers” but I think this doesn’t happen because Stechschulte assumes it as given (that it “is” true) and proceeds accordingly. The fact that women arrive to ask them to provide meat ratifies the men’s assumption (and the narrative’s tacit assumption) that they actually really do work as butchers, but this confirmation comes later than it should in the narrative, so to speak. Whatever justification or reason the men have for accepting their “impression” that they do actually work as butchers, this justification separates them experientially from the reader; the reader has no such access to this “reason”. Thus, even when the women appear, asking to buy meat, a reader need not assume this “proves” they work as butchers but simply represents another “bizarre fact” in the world they find themselves in. If, for instance, they have awakened in a parallel universe, one where people know them as butchers, this does not mean they have actually worked as butchers (in their home universe), &c. I offer this counterfactual not as “what happened” but simply to illustrate that Stechschulte’s tacit assumption about the truth of the men’s avocation does not necessarily get nailed down by his narrative. Thus, to whatever extent the reader and the men start off “in the same boat” (narratively speaking), we rather quickly have a divergence of experience and, instead of identifying with them, we begin spectating over them at a distance. This becomes unavoidably explicit when the point of view shifts away to the two women.

[20] Clough refers to the frame as written by a doctor—“ The book starts with a doctor’s account of two travellers finding a human head that nonetheless was somehow still alive and speaking–a bald, round, mangled head” (¶2, from here)—while the text in this book states unambiguously, “From the diary of Anne M. Nemeth, student, Lyre School for Girls” (1). Clough also refers to colour panels and the picture of the severed head he supplies differs from the image in my text (Stechschulte over-writes mine with words); we seem to have different versions of the book floating around.

[21] I do not mean for these two items as synonymous.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 1]

Someone requested I read and reply to this book. And so, since this asks for something more familiarly “formal” than my typical “reply”, the following provides a longer, more point by point reflection of the book. This is part one.

What follows likely only addresses the opening 13 pages of his book (the Introduction). Not all of my commentary will run at such length, but the details included below help to frame Tires’ approach throughout the rest of his book. It contains many of the background assumptions and we will misread his book if we don’t keep these assumptions, presumptions, and premises in mind.

Theory, Practice, Praxis

Tirres, a North American Latino academic scholar[3] teaching at DePaul University, symbolises in his dialogue between “liberationist “ and “pragmatic” thought a “South/North divide” that characterises many of the differences of opinion on the topic ever since Gustavo Gutiérrez—the man that Tirres refers to as “the father of liberation theology” (5)[4]—established the discipline/practice/approach more than forty years ago. Simply for the sake of clarity, one may summarise a large number of the differences of opinion as centred on a dominating concern with “practice” (in the world South) as contrasted with dominating tendency to “theorise” (in the world North).

This, of course, oversimplifies the matter. Since a great deal of South American liberation theology took various cues from Marxist analysis, to reduce it only to a “practice” offers a parody of it; similarly, to characterise “north American” liberation theology as always or only empty intellectualizing without any substantial concern for engagement with the “real world” also parodies the actual state of affairs.

At the same time, parodies generally contain at least grains—if not whole chunks—of truth. When we look at the general circumstance of those composing or working with liberation theology, for instance, in Latin American settings, where priests were often persecuted and sometimes murdered by the State for the work the priests were doing, we see a very different picture from liberation theologians in ivory towers in the world North. For those in the trenches of warfare or the oppressive ravages of the State, theological hair-splitting becomes not only dangerously irrelevant but also morally suspect, because people shall go on dying around you while you twaddle on trying to work out which hair to split.

Of course, an immediate position one may take on this “theory” or “practice” split denies the “or” in the first place, and insists that theory and practice remain equally necessary. However, this ultimately only begs the question. If we need both, then how much of each do we need? 50/50? 60/40? 40/60?[5] Whatever the answer to this, the opposition suggested in Tirres’ title between “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought moves in the murky space of this distinction.

Tirres frames and gives us a taste of an answering with the two quotations that open the book: the first declares the “announcement of the demise of liberation theology [as] both parochial and questionable” (1) and insists that “liberation theology needs to be and has been restated for the new situation on a more global level” (1); the second quotation cites a formula by Cornel West that identifies prophetic pragmatism as itself an orientation capable of overcoming the South/North, liberationist/pragmatic divide that Tirres addresses throughout his book.

I want to add: many (academic) disciplines and (revolutionary) movements have confronted this problem. One sometimes hears of “praxis” as a melding of theory and practice. What Arendt noted in another context—that Western philosophy often focuses too much on the life of the mind to the detriment of everyday life—reprises once again the theory versus practice debate; and she specifically promoted the notion of praxis as its antidote. Similarly, commentators have deemed Marxism in general as a philosophy of praxis. The prophetic pragmatism West avows above would similarly constitute a praxis in this sense.

I say all of this (1) not to oversimplify the matter but (2) not to lose sight of the fact that these distinctions do, in fact, matter. In (revolutionary) movements, sometimes those with too much theory show themselves as cowards, i.e., unwilling to engage in everyday life or confrontations on the barricade. Similarly, one sees moments in history when people elected to pursue paths of resistance woefully stupid or misinformed or, worse, so wrongly informed that the outcome achieved the opposite of that intended: a result that they would have avoided had they had a more lucid or illuminating grasp of theory. So, if sometimes theoreticians become cowards (and people die as a result), at other times activists act stupidly (and people die as a result).

So these issues don’t at all become “merely academic” all the time and everywhere. Sometimes they become matters of life and death. So that if there does seem some sense in distinguishing “theory” and “practice” (not only as concepts we can use to try to analyse the lived experience of human beings as well as our own but also as moral yard sticks for identifying human behaviour in times of crisis or peace), then they remind us not simply to move back and forth between but to know when we must. They can help us to understand when we face a “moment of theory”—a moment when something requires an analysis of a situation or a reflection on an experience—as opposed to a “moment of practice”, when something requires an intervention into a situation or the enacting of an experience.

For people in affluent communities, as the world North generally reflects, we far less frequently find ourselves confronted by overt, life-threatening moments of crisis—and so the liberation theology of the north may “wallow” in the life of the mind or the contemplative life. But for those in nations torn apart by war or under the heel of totalitarian oppression, such moments of crisis come much more frequently. Thus, what a South American liberation theologian understands as “pragmatic” when standing at gunpoint before national “security forces” differs markedly and alarmingly from what a liberation theologian in the North would understand as “pragmatic” in a daily-life sort of way.

From this, it must already have become clear that the apparently tidy category (in the title) that distinguishes “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought does not hold up so well when put to work. I will return to this.

Liberation Theology “Defined”

Liberation theologies have for the last forty years animated much thought amongst those deemed marginalized populations (the poor, the world South, women, queers, people of colour). I say “marginalized populations” in order not to say “subaltern populations” since, contrary to expectations, these “subalterns”[6] have spoken, while not necessarily heard or hear correctly.

Given this wide range of applications, any attempt to “define” liberation theology will run into problems. But at least with respect to Tirres’ book, we may get a sense of what he intends to mean by it (and, presumably, later chapters will expand further upon this as necessary).

He notes that from liberation theology’s “earliest days, critics have charged that liberation theologies reduce faith to politics and, in doing so, fall short of an encompassing, or “integral,” sense of liberation” (3). In a word, liberation theologies (note the plural) were too worldly; they gave short shrift to the spiritual. Hence, “Whereas, on the one hand, the Vatican clearly reaffirms liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor, it takes issue with liberation theology’s ‘temptation to reduce the gospel to an earthly gospel,’ on the other” (3).

Two things need mentioning here. Along with the “debate about ideas” that we may see in the above, these also often have an extremely strong political element. Where the Vatican desired to oppose an emerging Marxist resistance, it could criticise liberation theology on the grounds that it seemed to worldly or earthly. Conversely, of course, Marxists could, as a matter of strategy, leverage the existing faith of their Latin American country folk—under the theologically unassailable category of “helping the poor”—and thus move toward political (not liberatory) power.

To sort out whether, at any given moment, the Vatican had played politics first and theology second, or whether a liberation theologian plays spirit first or politics, can only get sorted out by specifically examining that historical moment, if we even can do so any more. I will generally state: when the Vatican in these matters appears to put spirit first, this disingenuously attempts to mask the power-play at work. For them, theology is power and expressly for the purpose of maintaining the present status quo of power. By contrast, if disavowals of political aspirations might sound disingenuous from liberation theologians, for them theology is resistance and expressly for the purposes of changing the present status quo.

North American liberation theologian may occupy a kind of third position in this opposition. If the South American liberation theologian stands at root as a revolutionary seeking to change the current social order (for the benefit of the most oppressed), and the Vatican, in its reaffirmation of “liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor” stands at root as a reactionary against too much (political) change in the final analysis, then the North American liberation theologian may take up a kind of watered-down version: he (or she) may serve as an apologist for the Vatican (and power) or as an advocate for a change of power.

But she or he does so from a doubly protected but also doubly disadvantaged position. On the one hand, they (generally) have the luxury of not dying in a Latin American dictators torture chamber while facing only the threat of a loss of prestige (or perhaps ecclesiastical stripping) if they “go too far” in academic circles. Similarly, the kind of basic, social irrelevancy that Eagleton (1984)[7] noted for academic literary critics applies here as well; they can say what they want, because what they say doesn’t matter. And distance from the controlling Authority (the Vatican) makes the force of that Authority less threatening. So long as they don’t lose tenure, in the final analysis, who cares? Moreover, the dynamics of independence or Vatican control exerted over academic (North American) liberation theologians must, again, vary by circumstance.

This means, in consequence, that a central battle fought by North American liberation theologians will line up more in terms of securing political influence within the academy, whatever the more wide-spread (actually political) influence generated in terms of public policy. It means that liberation theology will tend to become a means to an end (the academician’s career) and not an end in itself (the articulation of a liberation theology itself).

I mentioned before that a Vatican emphasis on spirit (over politics) must necessarily read as disingenuous, if not actively deceptive, and that the South American liberation theologian’s political disavowals might also seem disingenuous—a “threat” usually offset by the blunt an frank denial by the theologian that the world of engagement itself cannot help being political and that not all politics arise as brutally self-serving. One may politick for others. Similarly, a North American academic will often sound disingenuous in the claim that his or her work has no relation to career aspirations, and he or she might try to draw an analogy with the (sincere) example of their South American counterpart, who politicks for others.

This should not deceive us. An assistant professor has relative less power than the administration overseeing him or her, but the context of the academic institution—as a bulwark of cultural power in the United States—makes that “relative powerlessness” a red herring. When we look at the risks and the threats that many south American liberation theologians faced, the analogy with any “risk” or “threat” in the north American context collapses. Moreover, whatever “sincere” gesture an academic’s work offers, if it issues only in the form of productions with egregiously limited social reach, then we cannot take seriously any claim that such work happens “for others”—unless, by others, we mean the narrow, small, limited coterie of specialists who might stumble across the work. We may compare this kind of claimed work “for others” to the high public visibility of Terry Eagleton or (even more so) Raymond Williams as necessarily embodying a requisite “public self” without which work “for others” becomes the sort of sterile and harmless stuff Eagleton identifies.

So, between the in a sense very real politics of Vatican versus south American liberation theologian—however the lines of force play out in those circumstances—we must contrast the play-politics generally at work in academic publication. I do not mean that academic careers do not “live and die” by such politics—but in the confrontation between the Vatican and the world South, people, not careers, die.

All of this does not say this particular (academic) work lacks a convincing ethical commitment to the world. It does mean that in taking up the contrast between “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought—whatever that proves to be—the engagement Tirres makes with it arises in an academic context where (1) little stands at risk for him, and (2) he already participates in the world-dominating power of the United States, whose foreign policy (terribly and ironically) played a paramount role in creating the conditions in South America that made liberation theology “necessary”. As such, we may suspect in advance that any articulation of “prophetic pragmatism” (praxis) offered by Tirres serves less the end of liberation theology itself and rather merely “solves a problem” that currently exists due to the on-going (specifically academic) hair-splitting about “theory” and “practice”.

Tirres employs another categorical distinction to describe. He contrasts “the ethical and political dimension of faith practice” heavily emphasised by Latin American liberation theologians with the emphasis on “aesthetic and cultural production (lo cotidiano)” that US scholars have often taken up. By looking at this, US scholars “have explored the potential life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion, a topic that several early Latin American theologians dismissed” (6).[8] He then writes (I will unpack some of it below):

On the other hand, however, in turning to cultural and aesthetic categories, US Latino/a theologians may often risk losing ties with the ethical and political dimension of faith practice. I find problematic, for instance, the suggestion by some US Latino/a theologians that the Latin American “preferential option for the poor” is better understood in the North American context as the “preferential option for culture.” This distinction strikes me as entirely too stark.6 To be clear, I see the value and originality of US Latino/a theologians using culture and aesthetic practices as basic staring points for reflection. However, if this reflection does not bring into focus some form of social misery—whether actual, implied, or remembered—then I do believe that it is fair to ask whether US Latino/a theology is indeed a liberation theology.7 I agree, in part, with critics like Manuel Mejido and Ivan Petrella, who have argued that US Latino/a theology may at times fall back on questions of cultural identity without sufficiently promoting a political program. At the same time, however, I do not believe that this is an either/or proposition, wherein the only available option is either to focus on aesthetics and culture or to promote a concrete blueprint for political change. The more interesting and challenging question, I believe, is how a turn to aesthetics and culture, when done carefully and critically, may re-inform and reinvigorate both the theory and practice of faith-in-action (7).

6 González raises a similar point in Afro-Cuban Theology, 144-45. [footnote in original][9]

7 Writing early in his career, Cornel West makes a comparable observation as regards Black theology. He argues that if the social vision of black theologians is to equate liberation with middle-class status, black theologians “should drop the meretricious and flamboyant term ‘liberation’ and adopt the more accurate and sober word ‘inclusion.’” West, “Black Theology,” 413. [footnote in original] [10]

We can see in this extended quotation most of the tendencies and tensions I have already identified. When he says he finds “entirely too stark” the US Latino/a theologian substitution of a “preferential option for culture” in place of the original “preferential option for the poor” I think he not only understates the matter by an order of magnitude but also that he betrays a class bias by far, far too politely rejecting this substitution. For one, even in our “North American context,” we have millions of poor in need of liberation and the substitute of an emphasis on anything else, much less “culture”, seems nothing less than a denial of the necessity of addressing poverty. Whereas liberation theology in South America had to “step down” to serve the poor, in our North American context it would (at the very best) prefer to lift the poor up to “culture”—no doubt with the help of the “potentially life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion”. I find it hard to read even a phrase like “far too stark” as anywhere near stark enough for what lies at the back of this substitution from “poor” to “culture”.

This heading seems an expression of class solidarity—he will not condemn in the appropriate terms what I would call an of betrayal by his academic peers.[11] At the very best, we may imagine him grinding his teeth in disgust. His next sentence acknowledges in principle their academic efforts, but then he says, “However, if this reflection does not bring into focus some form of social misery—whether actual, implied, or remembered—then I do believe that it is fair to ask whether US Latino/a theology is indeed a liberation theology” (7), and he cites Cornel west’s monumental authority (in a footnote) to back this claim up.

This marks a very strong rebuff to his fellow academics. However, it does not yet distinguish whether he seriously means this challenge or if he merely seeks to clear a certain amount of intellectual space so he can present his own argument. The following more suggests the latter:

At the same time, however, I do not believe that this is an either/or proposition, wherein the only available option is either to focus on aesthetics and culture or to promote a concrete blueprint for political change (7).

In this rejection of an “either/or proposition,” we should remember the “either/or” itself only exists in this context (Tirres’ book in particular) because academics accept it as premise and use it to argue about the discipline they practice. As I noted before, over and over one hears someone saying, “No, it’s not X or Y. It’s a blend of both”; “life isn’t black or white; it’s shades of grey”.

False. I see no shades of grey about the position “people of colour are inferior”. Or the notion “homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed marry” and so forth.

As curious human creatures, we resort frequently to either/or contrasts an then, just because somebody proposed, we start acting like we have no alternative to them and that they actually suffice explanatorily. “Nature versus nurture” offers a fine case of this. People have literally had their sex organs removed because of arguments that depend on “nature or nurture”. And because nearly every at least mildly thoughtful person recognizes that both ends of a proposed spectrum never make sense by themselves—i.e., human beings consist only of nature (nurture plays no role); or humans emerge only through nurture (nature plays no role at all)—then it starts to seem very reasonable, common sense even, to claim some middle ground, i.e., “it’s not either/or but a mix of both” (nature AND nurture, or in Tirres’ case, ethical and political aspects AND aesthetic and cultural aspects). He abbreviates these two categories, as we see in the title, aesthetics and ethics.

But if I have a bunch of rotted meat in my left hand and a bunch of diseased vegetables in my right rand, then claiming “it’s not either/or” and smashing the two together into some kind of “shade of grey” will not yield a tasty treat, but only a disgusting mess, just as Herrnstein & Murray’s 60/40 nature/nurture split in their book offers a disgusting mess, not a palatable, much less tenable, position.

I do not mean to suggest that Tirres merely pays the kind of lip service to and and/also like Herrnstein and Murray di. One of his book’s two premises insists that “critiques of liberation theology’s reduction of faith to politics have been largely misguided, since these critiques have not fully grapple with some of liberation theology’s core background assumptions” (4). The second premise:

is that liberation thinkers can still do a better job of articulating what they mean by integral liberation. I propose to address this question not by returning to the familiar an somewhat outworn categories [dichotomy] of faith and politics, but rather, by looking at the question of integral liberation through the categories of the ethical and the aesthetic (5–6).

This substitution of “faith and politics” with “ethics and aesthetics” may seem a facile substitution but behind it Tirres insists that one may approach the latter categories “as inherent and common qualities of experience, rather than rigid or separable domains of human experience [i.e., faith and politics]” (6). We’ll wait to see if this this proves the case or not. One may have some trepidation for the project in advance, however, since a very great portion of the book devotes itself to the side project of reconstructing John Dewey’s philosophy in order to make it into a tool for arguing for what Tirres call integral liberation.

One may wonder, in all sincerity, just how necessary such a reconstruction would be. The South American liberation theologians seem to have fared just fine without this largely academic side project that bulks so largely in Tirres’ book. Moreover, it hardly seems likely that tires would suggest if South American liberation theologian did not take up this (non-Hispanic) “reconstructed” philosophy that they could not achieve anything in their respective cultures. At the outset here, it becomes too easy to imagine this book as a properly dressed up intellectual exercise serving, at most, simply to solve a narrow (philosophical) problem that has no bearing on daily life—all the while citing daily life as essential, of course. More charitably, the book may offer an (unnecessarily hobbled or limited) project in that it seeks to arrive at an impossible conclusion (an actual integral liberation that does not marginalize the world South): impossible because, in attempting to building something not polluted by the Master’s sins, Tirres has had to use the Master’s tools to do so.


 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] His pedigree includes Princeton University, Harvard Divinity School, and indebtedness to, if not patronage by, Cornel West.

[4] I dislike greatly such designations, since they explicitly elide who the mother in question is, both metaphorically and literally (in the form of women who made it possible for Gutiérrez to arrive at the point of articulating liberation theology).

[5] This may seem itself a silly hair to split, but one may see a particularly laughable and awful example of it in Herrnstein & Murray’s (1995)* The Bell Curve, where after much very dubious blather about nature versus nurture they finally declare, quite brightly and confidently, that nature/nurture splits 60/40. Since Herrnstein & Murray plump for biological determinism, if not racist eugenics outright, this conclusion comes as no surprise, but it serves also as an (unconvincing) justification for their genetic determinism in the first place, since “nature” plays a more dominant role than “nurture”.

* Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (2010). Bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life: Simon and Schuster

[6] Subaltern studies most frequently (or popularly) take as their starting point Spivak’s (1988) seminal “Can The Subaltern Speak?” More precisely, “The term ‘subaltern’ … is an allusion to the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). It refers to any person or group of inferior rank and station, whether because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion” (from here).

The [Subaltern Studies Group] arose in the 1980s, influenced by the scholarship of Eric Stokes and Ranajit Guha, to attempt to formulate a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia. This narrative strategy most clearly inspired by the writings of Gramsci was explicated in the writings of their “mentor” Ranajit Guha, most clearly in his “manifesto” in Subaltern Studies I and also in his classic monograph The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. Although they are, in a sense, on the left, they are very critical of the traditional Marxist narrative of Indian history, in which semi-feudal India was colonized by the British, became politicized, and earned its independence. In particular, they are critical of the focus of this narrative on the political consciousness of elites, who in turn inspire the masses to resistance and rebellion against the British.

Instead, they focus on non-elites — subalterns — as agents of political and social change. They have had a particular interest in the discourses and rhetoric of emerging political and social movements, as against only highly visible actions like demonstrations and uprisings (from here).

Tirres refers to the subaltern in his own work.

[7] Eagleton, T. (1984). The function of criticism: from “the spectator” to post-structuralism: London: Verso.

[8] I find this claim rather thorny. Tirres would do well to explain (1) the rationale such theologians had for dismissing this factor, an (2) for US scholars to take upon themselves the conceit of declaring upon the “potential life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion” (6) reeks already of dubious anthropology. People from the “First World” have a long and bad habit of “discovering” the “life-giving” customs of those of the “Third World”. But Tirres gives us nowhere near enough documentation here to draw any conclusions. Nonetheless, that merely “potential” life-giving aspects were “discovered” seems to make this claim (on behalf of US scholars) even more hollow. Meanwhile, no doubt any “popular religion” that served to politically neutralize and placate a local population would very likely get dismissed by (Marxist) liberation theologians as positively a hindrance. Since such a theologian stood on the ground where these cultural forces played out, that US scholars could claim to more correctly read what locals “need” seems patronizing at best, and reactionary at least. Again, Tires does not provide enough background here to explain the justification for his claim.

[9] González, M. (2006). Afro-Cuban theology: religion, race, culture, and identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

[10] West, C. (1979). Black theology and Marxist Thought. In JH Cone and G. Wilmore (eds.) Black theology: a documentary history, vol. 1, 1966–1979, pp. 409–24. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

[11] I do not imagine for a moment that those who would substitute “culture” in place of “the poor” do not themselves offer some variety of justification for this, but it would take far more than some facile lip service from an academic to present a convincing justification for this “in a North American context”. The poor stand erased enough from history already; well-off and sheltered academics thousands of miles away should excuse themselves from ever repeating that gesture.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Evidence demonstrates that “mass imprisonment must end. It endangers human dignity. It is a violation of human rights and international law. It is unconstitutional. It does not protect public safety [but exposes it to greater danger]” (172, emphasis added).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: J. Simon’s (2014)[2] Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America

Mass incarceration, at least for now, is dead this author declares. By this, he means that the Supreme Court has declared the design principle of deliberate overcrowding (in the California prison system) with a systematic lack of constitutionally minimal medical care (and mental health care) cannot continue.

This does not mean that the total number of inmates must come down—they could be outsourced to Mexico, diverted to home monitoring, or county facilities (criminal or for chemical dependency, &c)—but it does mean that the principle of deliberately callous warehousing (in overcrowded conditions) constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation.

Simon has worked on this issue a long time as a policy analyst, and his book remains morally cantered, very adroitly handling masses of facts, and even (in places) offering theoretical perspectives as part of his analysis of the matter. To give an adequate summary of the whole thing, I feel I should have taken notes, but I didn’t. Take it as simply a strong recommendation to read it on my part.

A main outcome from the book for me hinges on the hopefulness it inspires and the victory it represents. Incarcerated people form one of the most vulnerable classes of people (in any State), and to have their voiceless voice heard and upheld (at very long last) even at the level of the Supreme Court shows that sometimes, even in something as overwhelmingly enormous as the carceral system in the United States, the bad guys don’t get to win, no matter how much money they have.

The Supreme Court decision hinged on the outcome of three previous suits. The first protested the cruel and unusual punishment of radical isolation (in so-called supermax prisons)—a lawsuit that, if memory serves, did not prevail on that point per se even as the judges found that supermax containment for mentally ill prisoners did constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The second widened the net and called into question the systematic lack of appropriate medical care and medical care facilities for inmates. In this case, the judge found conditions so egregious in California that he established a third-party receivership to oversee implementation of a constitutionally adequate medical care system. California proved so incapable of meeting this order that another suit came forward, but this happened after the federal Prison Litigation Reform of 1996, signed by the cryptoconservative Clinton.

That legislation, which aimed at essentially declaring all prisoner lawsuits frivolous, set a very high bar for whether or not prisoner complaints could even get filed. As a result, when the next California prison lawsuit came forward, it had to clear the hurdle of this Reform, which had the unintended consequence of necessarily redirecting the courts attention from the specific problematic aspects the prison system for individuals and instead put the focus on the actual structural characteristics of the prison system itself. Specifically, the plaintiffs sought a reduction in the prison population and so decades of prison practice designed to maximize warehousing while providing a minimum of care got thrown into sharp relief.

An example of this designed overcrowding: prisons were built with sewage systems at double their (theoretically) expected capacity. As the judgment wrote:

Thus, although we agree with Dr. Thomas that a custody-dominated culture is a barrier to delivering constitutionally adequate care, we also agree with Dr. Bear that “[if]f you try to change the culture, you can’t. You can’t change the culture until you reduce the population and can make the institution safe.” … Consequently, it is crowding and not culture that is the primary cause of the unconstitutional system of health care delivery in California’s prisons.

Simon goes on to note:

The state of California had planned its prisons to be overcrowded, designing infrastructure for water and sewage to operate at 190 percent of capacity while providing for medical and mental health care not even at a normal occupancy level. Under mass incarceration, overcrowding has become a normal feature of imprisonment nationwide; more than half of the states had prison populations well in excess of design capacity in 2010. Although none has created a humanitarian crisis as large and shocking as California, the threat of torturelike conditions for prisoners with chronic illness is all too real in most states. This system and its resulting damages must be recognized for what it was (and perhaps still is): the greatest domestic human rights violation committed by a state government outside the South under slavery and segregation (122).

In the end, a three-judge panel declared that California had to reduce its prison population by some 46,000 inmates, now. California appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s order.

In quietly affirming the lower court’s evidence-based assessment that prison was not a necessary or sufficient condition of public safety, the Brown majority broke with the posture of extreme deference toward imprisonment choices and unleashed a potential sea change in penal policy (152–3).

As Justice Kennedy put it:

Expert witnesses produced statistical evidence that prison populations had been lowered without adversely affecting public safety in a number of jurisdictions, including certain counties in California, as well as Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Florida, and Canada … Washington’s former secretary of corrections testified that his State had implemented population reduction methods, including parole reform and expansion of good time credits, without any “deleterious effect on crime.” … In light of this evidence, the three-judge court concluded that any negative impact on public safety would be “substantially offset, and perhaps entirely eliminated, by the public safety benefits” of a reduction in overcrowding (153).

Don’t miss that: mass incarceration makes the public less safe.

Simon’s last chapter, “The New Common Sense” breaks down in detail the manifold ways that the “tough on crime” rhetoric that played a major role in establishing mass incarceration has started to give way to alternatives. I’d like to simply retype the whole chapter, but in lieu of that, the headers from the index paint a good general picture of what this new consensus consists of: compassionate parole laws; criminological research about criminal risk-decline; declining crime rates; human rights law and dignity as a constitutional value; mechanisms to encourage good behaviour in prison; moves away from megaprisons and supermax; new approaches to health care/mental health care; new approaches to serious felony offenders; new treatment of people with serious mental illness; nonviolent nonserious crimes and gradations of punishment; optimism about crime prevention; optimism about those released from prison; principle of parsimony in the use of prison; revival of rehabilitative models; and shorter/rescaled sentences (205).

One of the roots in the Supreme Court decision (if not also behind many of the changes noted above) involve the proclamation in it that “dignity animates the Eighth Amendment” (165), i.e., the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. One does not engage in cruel and unusual punishment because it stands contrary to human dignity.

Dignity has in recent decades become the conceptual engine of an emerging body of human rights law that in some regions, particularly Europe, has become a major influence on punishment and prisons. The United States, for historical reasons, had seemed largely indifferent to dignity, viewing it as adding little to existing constitutional values (165).

The Supreme Court’s declaration that “dignity animates the Eighth Amendment” then “is the most striking example thus far, and Brown’s notion of dignity is particularly salient to punishment because it arises in a case that essentially placed mass incarceration on trial” (165).

Like Noah’s children, we stand just after the high-water mark of an epic flood of imprisonment, a flood that drowned whole communities and harmed and disabled millions over the course of decades. As the waters recede, those with power will quickly define the wreckage left behind in society as beyond the scope of reasonable reform. Already the safe line for politicians appears to be in favour of “evidence-based alternatives” [to incarceration] meant to save money will keeping crime low. While surely this is better than reckless imprisonment, it does little to reduce the senseless fear of crime or reduce the stigma heaped on the formerly incarcerated. Mass imprisonment must end. It endangers human dignity. It is a violation of human rights and international law. It is unconstitutional. It does not protect public safety [but exposes it to greater danger]. The human dignity of prisoners, exposed by the shocking and degrading conditions in California’s prisons, provides our best guide going forward as we reimagine criminal justice institutions that can protect safety, provide justice for victims, and respect the decency of a civilized society (171–2).


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press, pp. i–ix, 1–209.

Summary (TLDR Version)

The perils of collections (of stories), not just in Duarte’s book, but music as well. As I say at the end of this—no apologies for giving it away!—thank you Gustavo Duarte for wasting my time with your book; I have found a way to turn that time spent into a more fruitful consideration of genre, divided narrative, the production of literary and musical compilations, and the opportunities they afford for saying more. This itself stands to help artists (myself or others) to aspire to greater things.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[2] Monster & Other Stories

For some reason, it seems you may already find the entire (87-page) book <href=”#v=onepage&q=Gustavo%20Duarte%20Monsters%20and%20other%20stories&f=false”>here. That way, you may decide for yourself if I illiterately read graphic novels or not.

English usage gives several senses for “nonplussed”, usually pointing to something like “confused” or “perplexed”. In its more fully etymological origin, we see that, but how it points also to “speechless” (i.e., left speechless), specifically when there remains nothing left to say:

nonplus (v.) “to bring to a nonplus, to perplex,” 1590s, from the noun (1580s), properly “state where ‘nothing more’ can be done or said,” from Latin non plus “no more, no further” (see plus). Related: Nonplussed (from here).

I feel this way about Duarte’s book, which (it would seem) compiles three pieces of his (earlier) work. I won’t fault the book for making less sense as a compilation; the pieces collected here clearly have no apparent intention by sitting proximate to one another. Nor do they amplify one another in any particular way.

Again, I have no pointed objection to this. The major “aesthetic” that seems generally to govern collections (of short stories in particular) involve some measure of (perceived) “quality”. For “new” authors, they may attempt to get as much of their “best work” together as they can. For retrospectives of established authors, the economics of market reach and popularity seem to very often govern what stories appear in a collection, often annoyingly; trying, for instance, to find a complete collection of Chekhov’s stories (or Flannery O’Connor’s), to name only two authors, often involves running into several of the same stories over and over in different compilations. In still other cases, like Stephen King’s (1983)[3] Different Seasons, he simply piles together works that resulted (as he describes it) from leftover authorial inspiration following the completion of other novels.

Of course, this economic or authorial desire simply to pack works into a volume doesn’t mean you have to ignore the opportunity to create a deliberate sequence out of them.[4] Joyce’s (1914)[5] Dubliners, although stand-alone short stories (and one encounters “Araby” all over the place), nevertheless more resembles a “novel of separate narratives” that reads both as an intentional sequence (i.e., like a novel) and as a series of sometimes self-referential short stories. Faulkner’s (1942)[6] Go Down, Moses, while “merely collecting” previous material nonetheless still very deliberately and intentionally places the texts in a mutually informing sequence. And, more recently, at least two collections by Ellen Gilchrist, her (1981)[7] In The Land of Dreamy Dreams and (1984)[8] Victory over Japan take a similar, mosaic-like approach, but up the ante of the gesture one step further by creating “sub-collections” within those books that nevertheless tenuously and tantalizingly refer (or seem to refer) to one another. My own (1988) Endnotes takes this strategy as well.

Successes presuppose non-successes as well. William Faulkner’s (1939)[9] If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (originally published under the title The Wild Palms) interlards two narratives in a way clearly intended to make a coherent sequence out of two juxtaposed narration. More specifically, he combines what seem two novellas or very long short stories (“The Wild Palms” and “The Old Man”), and attempts to make a novel of this. Dobbs (2001)[10] assures us:

Overshadowed by his four masterpieces of the late 1920s and 1930s (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!), Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (first published as The Wild Palms in 1939) has never garnered the sustained critical attention bestowed upon these Depression-era heavyweights. However, the novel has recently begun to attract scholars, as if we’d caught up with Faulkner at last. One of the features of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem that deserves a closer look is its odd double narrative, in which Faulkner crystallizes the central themes of his earlier major works and raises the stakes of his representations of an anguished South. As in the earlier novels, modernist preoccupations are central: the slippery relationships among memory, history, and myth; the agonizing yet aesthetically energizing task of constructing a narrative of history and self in a world where objectivity is clearly impossible and the grounds of subjectivity are always in question; and the problem, given cultural and psychological anxieties about race, gender, and sexuality, of articulating an embodied identity. Alongside other modernist writers, Faulkner was grappling with these philosophical, psychological, sociopolitical, and aesthetic issues, as well as with a growing sense of the underlying radical flux of experience itself. Throughout his work, this terrifying yet fascinating flux is represented in gendered terms—as an excessive fluidity associated with the feminine. In If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, in particular, Faulkner explores his culture’s fear of radical fluidity in ways that connect women’s bodies (as powerful sites of origin, seduction, and contamination) to both a radically feminized landscape and a dangerously volatile free-market economy. I will argue that every aspect of early-twentieth-century American culture some might wish to consider stable—gender, geography, the logic of capitalism—proves, in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, to be a source of profound chaos (811).

My point, however, doesn’t hinge on the general quality of Faulkner’s writing, which remains excellent of course,[11] or problematic in terms of the thematics Dobbs identifies, but simply on whether or not he succeeds at pulling off its structural conceit, which puts claims to weld these two separate narratives together in a necessary or convincing way. And just to avoid scepticism, I promise you that the most banal and conventional reading of this book accepts[12] that the book intends the narratives should read as intertwined:

Each story is five chapters long and they offer a significant interplay between narrative plots. The Wild Palms tells the story of Harry and Charlotte, who meet, fall in forbidden love, travel the country together for work, and, ultimately, experience tragedy when the abortion Harry performs on Charlotte kills her. Old Man is the story of a convict who, while being forced to help victims of a flood, rescues a pregnant woman. They are swept away downstream by the flooding Mississippi, and she gives birth to a baby. He eventually gets both himself and the woman to safety and then turns himself in, returning to prison (from here, emphasis added).

Except for the sentence I italicised above, I don’t dispute this plot summary. I would simply suggest that part of the reason this book remained overshadowed by others arises from a “failure” of this diptych (two-part narrative) structure.

Certainly, it didn’t help that readers of the novel, then originally called “The Wild Palms” after one of the narratives in the book, might have felt confused by this—why, if both narratives matter, does the book title refer only to one of them, for instance? At the same time, one can hardly miss that the actual story told in the “Wild Palms” section will tend to have much greater emotional resonance, if only because it relies on much more “sentimental” material. Here, not only does Charlotte “brutally” choose to leave her well-to-do-husband and children to enter into a liaison that she knows, from the beginning, dooms her (in proper Faulknerian fashion), but her husband also very poignantly refuses to stand in the way, recognising that her love (however doomed, however ill-advised) has more reality for her than anything he has offered. By contrast, a convict and pregnant woman floating around on a river don’t have as much immediate resonance.[13]

At root, it remains difficult to shake the impression that Faulkner accidentally wound up with two short stories that became too long to remain short stories but didn’t have enough material to get worked into novels; in other words, then languished on the shore of that now-most-impossible of literary forms, the novella. And while the novella used to remain viable as a publishable genre—Dostoevsky’s “short” stories (like “The Double,” or “White Nights” or, arguably, even his “novel” Notes from the Underground) all would never have seen the light of day if publishers had no outlet for novellas—those days have long past. King already makes this point bluntly enough thirty years ago in his introduction to Different Seasons.

The stranglehold of publication that makes novellas unpublishable (and these days, even collections of short stories seem an endangered species) had not completely taken root in Faulkner’s time; he managed to publish his story “The Bear” on its own, first in a considerably shorter version in Saturday Evening Post in 1942, then later in his collection Go Down Moses, and also in a stand-alone format in 1958.[14] This complicated publication history—that tracks the inadequacy of the short story as a form, at least as far as the story Faulkner had to tell in “The Bear” and the difficulties of getting the not-quite-novel-length, but adequate version, published—may similarly have some influence on “The Wild Palms”/”Old Man” juxtaposition.

Nor do I claim that we must kowtow to authorial intention simply because an author intends something. If critics find a thematics of interplay between the two narratives of Faulkner’s book, they surely adduce whatever good reasons they have for doing so. That this assumes one must or should read the novel this way seems merely orthodox to me; I surely do not find anything nearly so necessarily interconnected in the narratives as critics tend to assume. Like Joyce, Faulkner warrants not just close reading but more “respect” accorded to their intentions, but at the same time, this needn’t mean that any “sudden” inspiration Faulkner had—that the two narratives could “inform” one another—means that he set out with malice aforethought to do so.

Whatever this case, what seems not much addressed about this book involves the more general literary strategy of the divided narrative, i.e., a narrative that cuts back and forth in particular between two narratives intended to have some kind of parallel structure or impression.

Of course, on the one hand, the divided narrative (described only in these terms) would seem one of the most elemental features of the novel, or its nineteenth century examples at least. So many novels consist, precisely, of shifting zones of focus—tracking at one point the goings-on of one set of characters or a sub-plot and then switching to another. But I would propose we may identify not just a quantitative difference—i.e., that two or more plot lines get drawn into a novel and followed—but also a specifically qualitative difference that what I call the “divided narrative” offers.

Here and now does not lend itself to any sort of full exposition of this idea, especially since Duarte’s book serves as the central jumping off point for this post. However, I think I can draw together the themes or issues I have raised here in a way that relates back to that book and the others referred to here.

One of the most integral parts of what I would call a “divided narrative” involves a deliberate authorial contrast between the two narratives presented.[15] One might immediately think of any number of books—especially in the swords and sorcery genre, e.g., above all Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—but also movies that pull together many different strands of narrative; Tarantino’s (1994) Pulp Fiction certainly articulated this sort of thing (however well or poorly one wants to argue it did) but Kasdan’s (1991) Grand Canyon similarly tracks multiple strands of disparate narrative.

However—and we might debate this point for quite some time before nailing down the distinguishing description—the intention I wish to point to in the divided narrative specifically requires an overt authorial contrast between the (two) narratives presented. With Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, we do at least find ourselves confronted by a man and a pregnant woman and the steps they take in light of that circumstance, but I must say, at the very least, that this doesn’t yet supply enough interconnection to convince me that I should read them as parallel narratives. Similarly, we may imagine that the man and woman sowing chaos in the diner in Pulp Fiction have some intended contrast or thematic relationship with the boxer and his girlfriend, but this hardly as yet seems necessarily deliberate (on Tarantino’s part) yet.

Of course, critics and viewers (we all become critics at some point) may or can or will read such contrasts in, and at that point the author may simply have to stand aside. But I would still like to separate or acknowledge as distinct those works where the author deliberately and with malice aforethought establishes this kind of contrast as opposed to works where we do the greater bulk of that work. This distinction, at the very least, will not only help to differentiate “mere collections of stories” (Duarte’s, King’s, &c) from works that aspire to a sort of “sum greater than the parts” (Joyce’s, Gilchrist’s, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, my Endnotes, &c).

Again, I suggest that the divided narrative in particular hinges especially on two contrasting narratives, and in this respect Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem provides an excellent example of the form, on the assumption that he wrote it with malice aforethought and did not, simply after the fact, realize the two stories could sit next to one another. In this sense, the divided narrative represents a sub-genre of the novel, which—as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace—may roam in abundance over any number of narratives (along with essays on the nature of history). However, even Tolstoy’s monumental novel still has a centre: for all that people may read it for the love story, Tolstoy intended Pierre as the central figure, as Prokofiev did not miss that point when he composed his opera based on the book.

By contrast, a divided narrative has no such centre; rather, we have something more (literally) like an ellipse, formed of two foci. And, again, Faulkner’s book provides this kind of experience, even if I still question how deliberately he meant it.[16]

For books like Joyce’s Dubliners, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, and Gilchrist’s In The Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory Over Japan, these do in fact have centres, i.e., all of the material gets organised toward making some kind of “unified artistic point”. Critics have expressed this regarding Joyce’s book that he has made Dublin its main character, and this point resonates with what “the South” means in Faulkner’s collection.

To honour at least the two of Gilchrist’s books mentioned, I have to say that the sense of a centre comes across more obliquely if at all. In Dubliners or Go Down, Moses, once one finishes reading these books, an invitation from both feels offered to the reader to make a kind of coherent sense of the whole, to somehow relate all of the stories into a “larger message”. In both books by Gilchrist, however, she collects the various stories into sub-groups—groups which, in themselves, already seem to reflect, refer to, pointing, or simply reprise other stories. On the one hand, it sometimes seems—rather like Flannery O’Connor’s stories but in a radically different way—that Gilchrist only has one story to tell, except that she has still curiously “distributed” it not just through different stories, but different groups of stories, and this (at the very least) suggests the presences, ultimately, of multiple centres.

Or, again, as in Joyce who only has one setting in Dubliners (Dublin) and Faulkner has only one setting (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County), with Gilchrist “place” comes out as plural, whether Arkansas or elsewhere, even when the stories themselves seem very similar.

Of course, a divided narrative—as I attempt to characterise it here—seems incompatible with any collection of short stories in the first place, if I would insist that two narratives makes for a crucial feature. One could write a short story that did this, although a general rule of short story writing insists on keeping a pretty intense focus on a single line of narrative. The short story form doesn’t well lend itself (the doxa goes) to the kind of rambling multiplicity that the longer form of the novel allows. Nonetheless, while Joyce and Faulkner give us two fine examples of collections that pull together their material into a “centred” meta-short-story of fiction, Gilchrist’s two books show us that even a collection can offer something more like a dual-centred work. Of course, most collections don’t bother with any “centring” at all, but simply provide a disparate collection of pieces.

In popular music, we could say that the sort of thing that Faulkner and Joyce accomplished in their books shows up as the “concept album” as compared to most albums that simply consist of a disparate selection of music (however unified by the personality of the songwriter). Thus, something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Quadrophenia, which explicitly offer albums centred on “concepts” contrast with Animals or Who’s Next, respectively, however much both of these latter albums bear the imprint of Roger Waters and Pete Townshend.[17]

However, I can think of very little in music that resembles the sort of seemingly multi-centred work that Gilchrist offers.

But I have to say first: why do I bother with making this distinction at all? And what does this have to do with Duarte’s book?

For one thing, as a reply to his book, I may say nothing about it in fact. As I use the word, a “reply” amounts to a “response that would not have occurred without the input of the book (or work) in question)”. Duarte’s book does not offer a divided narrative, no. The way it resembles Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem involves extra-literary concerns, I assert. Faulkner had two works, both of which would have faced publications challenges (despite his fame—just as King had trouble finding outlets for the novellas in Different Seasons, despite his fame), and so he took the tack of glomming the two pieces together to at least make it into a “novel”. He then also would have provided (or not) a justification for this move, stating that the pieces inter-illuminated one another.[18]

I suggest this simply as a way to think about the book, not as a proven fact. And as a template for thinking about Duarte’s book, he provides us three narratives, one of which runs longer than the first two combined—and this in a book only 87 pages long. More briefly, it feels like even the first two narratives provided acts as little more than filler to justify publishing the book at all. Certainly a “less noble” impulse than in Faulkner’s case, since he self-evidently felt that both of the stories he’d written were essential things, worthy on their own.

Second, the existence of something like Dubliners, Go Down Moses, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, and Victory Over Japan—as also concept albums—shows us explicitly that heaps of disparate artistic elements (short stories, songs) may get arranged into “larger statements” even when those disparate elements were not necessarily originally intended to go together.

If you’ve followed what I’ve written, you could accuse me of speaking inaccurately. Yes. It seems likely that Joyce either set out to write a “concept album” (in literary form), or he discovered that he could along the way and made the necessary adjustments prior to publication. So also with The Wall or Quadrophenia—Pink Floyd and the Who set out from the beginning (it would seem) to write albums “centred” on a concept. By contrast, Go Down Moses and Gilchrist’s short stories seem more post-hoc artistic statements, taking a heap of pre-existing material and then sculpting or moulding them into “centred” artistic statements—with the caveat that Gilchrist’s sub-collections make for a sense of “multiple centres”.

Thus, on the one hand, we may say that Duarte had no vision of artistic unity, like Joyce or Pink Floyd, (between the three pieces he presents) when he set out to assemble this book and seems not to have made an particular effort after the fact, like Faulkner or Gilchrist, when offering these pieces together. I don’t fault him much for the first failing, but his inattention to the second possibility seems more culpable. Or, to put it even more simply, the only reason these three stories occur together boils down to economic reasons.

However, his laziness does not mean readers can’t or won’t try to make a coherent meta-narrative out of the offering. Fine. But let us not erroneously place credit then: we should compliment the genius (or daftness) of the reader rather than the non-craftsmanship of Duarte.

Having said at least partly how all of this relates back to (the failings) of Duarte’s book, and how those failings (which leave me nonplussed with respect to saying anything about the content or aesthetics of it) lead me to “reply” about divided narratives instead, I still feel curious to try to locate a musical example of a “divided narrative”—itself as part of the attempt to identify divided narrative (as a genre) per se.

Two albums come to mind: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and Kansas’ Song for America. What makes me think of these concerns how they seem like something more than just a collection of individual songs without, at the same time, overtly suggesting “concept albums”. More precisely, one might readily or easily accuse these of offering concept albums, but what those concepts might consist of seems tricky to identify.

Wherever this might lead, I will leave for future posts. Thank you Gustavo Duarte for wasting my time with your book; I have found a way to turn that time spent into a more fruitful consideration of genre, divided narrative, the production of literary and musical compilations, and the opportunities they afford for saying more.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics, pp. 1–87.

[3] King, S. (1983). Different seasons: Penguin.

[4] I imply that no thought goes into such sequencing—obviously, not necessarily so. King may have sequenced his novellas according to their chronological age, but that does not mean even then that the choice of sequence remains completely arbitrary or random.

[5] Joyce, J. (2001). Dubliners: Oxford University Press.

[6] Faulkner, W. (2011). Go Down, Moses: Random House LLC

[7] Gilchrist, E. (2013a). In the land of dreamy dreams: Diversion Books.

[8] Gilchrist, E. (2013b). Victory Over Japan: Diversion Books

[9] Faulkner, W. (2011). The Wild Palms:[If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]: Random House LLC

[10] Dobbs, C. (2001). Flood: The Excesses of Geography, Gender, and Capitalism in Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. American Literature, 73(4), 811-835.

[11] Or at least I’ll say so; he remains my favourite US writer.

[12] (thanks, I think, to what critical reception we do have, if not Faulkner’s own claims, even as he often made up stories about his own stories)

[13] Again, I mean this simply on the level of plot. Faulkner’s writing does not flag or droop simply because he writes about less emotionally obvious material. If anything, “convict” “woman” and “river” permit him to delve even more deeply into “archetypal” language.

[14] Faulkner, W., & Fussell, P. (1958). The bear: Schöningh

[15] Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a tri-part divided narrative, but I might also, at least at this point, insist that a divided narrative may only ever consist of two.

[16] My insistent criticism merely questions how deliberately he did this. For if, on extra-literary grounds, he chose to place the stories together, then any “interplay” that results comes from our reading of the novel as such. More specifically, we actually create and write-in the interplay ourselves, in our attempts to “make sense” of the narrative as Faulkner gives it to us. This simply shifts where credit goes (to the reader, not the writer).

[17] And, of course, one might continue the comparison from more formal classical music, placing on the one hand the opera or the musical (as analogous to the novel) and the musical revue (as a collection of short stories). Thus, for any given concert performance, one might create a performance list designed to aim for more of a “total statement” of some kind, and this would more resemble a concept album, &c (or the sort of collection of stories that Joyce, Faulkner, and Gilchrist) have treated us to.

[18] I suggest all of this as a hypothesis; I do not know what justifications in advance or afterward Faulkner gave for structuring the book as he did. Whatever part laziness (on my part plays) also has in mind how Faulkner regularly misrepresented the intentions of his fiction in the press, so (unfortunately) simply to appeal to his statements or authority on the matter does not necessarily provide any sort of definitive window to answer the question.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Lat (1979)[2] Kampung Boy

This is a “precursor” volume to Lat’s later[3] (1980) Town Boy, here tracking his earliest life in a Malaysian village; I believe this book particularly put Lat on the map, at least for Occidental eyes. I chose this book (and Town Boy) for a reason similar to reading a first volume of Abouet and Oubrerie’s (2007)[4] Aya series; to get a view of elsewhere in the world (through graphic novels) without succumbing to orientalist cryptotourism.

Like Town Boy, the narrative consists of piecemeal memoir but here—and unlike in Town Boy—the diffuse heap of occurrences nonetheless seems to hang together more as a kind of narrative than in Lat’s later book. Part of this comes from the expectations generally associated with the genre of childhood memoir: we bring less expectation for reading about a definitive start-middle-end type of narrative when browsing the “diffuse” experience of children.

I do not mean fictionalized childhood memoirs (much less fictions about childhood) can only have this kind of diffuseness, this “aimless” quality of narrative that seems to dovetail with the undirected or “aimless” quality of so much of early childhood: books like Hesse’s (1906)[5] Beneath the Wheel and Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo’s (1965)[6] The River Between have explicitly non-indeliberate plot arcs set during childhood, and the genre of the Bildungsroman (the novel of character-building, or simply coming-of-age story)—Goethe’s (1795)[7] Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice gets often cited as the earliest example in Occidental literature—while nonetheless a different genre, clearly present no intention at creating any sense of “aimless” narrative. Exactly the opposite in fact.

William Edgar Burghardt duBois—in his (1903)[8] Souls of Black Folk—described double consciousness in the following way:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (¶5, from here).

In Dyer’s (1997)[9] White: Essays on Race and Culture, he quotes a person who once observed that “white people don’t seem to know they’re white.” The correlate of this, that links to du Bois’ point above, means that white people don’t recognise so readily or so often (if at all) their own double-consciousness, that “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on” (whether contemptuously, with pity, approval, or not). Just as the (dominant white) discourse insists that “other people are raced, we are just people” (Dyer, 1), so would other people have (or have to live a world of) double-consciousness, because we are just have single-consciousness.

And we can get away with that in Occidental culture because it provides the norm assumed by (white) people. It makes for a merely polite—impolite, rather, given its consequences—fiction that we live. But, like an insular assumption that holds only for the group doing the assuming, once we go outside of that space, we encounter other people who do not share that assumption.

Consequently, when confronting Lat’s book, which he wrote about and for a Malaysian culture with little or no consideration for its reception by a non-Malaysian reader, it becomes readily obvious that “outsiders” cannot read it except with a double-consciousness. More precisely, a reader might indulge orientalist conceits—whether to favourably exoticise the Other or to take up the usual anti-Muslim/anti-non-white tropes in the form of amused contempt or pity that du Bois identifies—but a less indoctrinated reader can only note how the book double-means simultaneously (for the acculturated “Malaysian” reader and the non-acculturated “non-Malaysian” reader).

As an important note, Lat wrote the book in English (with Malay terms included) not to reach an English-speaking audience but because the newspaper he worked for published in English. The original publisher later produced a Malay-language version of the book. In light of this, we may feel confident that Lat wrote as a local producer and not as a comprador intellectual, attempting to mediate for “the west” the “exotic” or “foreign” elements of Malaysian culture for an Occidental audience. So, since Lat does not set out with an intention to “explain” Malaysia to a non-Malaysian (non-Muslim or especially Occidental) world, then this requires an acknowledgment of double-consciousness on the part of “non-Malaysian” readers.[10]

When I say “non-Malaysian” I mean to point to those who do not have the kind of acculturation that permits a “Malaysian” reading (understanding) of the book. I do not mean, strictly speaking, “white” compared to “non-white” or “Occidental” compared to “non-Occidental” though clearly most “white” or “Occidental” readers will, in fact, lack the “Malaysian” acculturation to grant them access to a “Malaysian” reading of the book. In theory, a “white” person who grew up in Malaysia at the time might very well have a culturally competent (Airhihenbuwa, 1995)[11] reading of the text, just as someone of Malaysia descent not raised in the environment of the book might misread it in various ways.

This caveat in place, one may hardly deny that most people who pick up this book at their local library in the United States (or buy it from somewhere) will not have the cultural competence for a “Malaysian” reading of the book. And that unavoidably interposes the fact of double-consciousness, whether or not a non-Malaysian reader elects to acknowledge it or not.

Three examples from the book illustrate this well.

The most overwhelmingly likely “white” or “Occidental” misreading of this book will read it in universalist terms. Those aspects that analogize with “white” or “Occidental” patterns of childhood will get highlighted (in a favourable way) while “alien” or “exotic” or “otherly” aspects in the book will get overlooked or cast in a problematic light. The point here does not involve, for example, whether “all” children run and laugh joyously during childhood, but rather the insistence that such a claim may get made about “all” children in the first place.

We must keep in mind that the when the Occidental paradigm talks about human universals (of experience) it means, sometimes explicitly, more often only implicitly, Euroamerican “universals” (of experience). Thus, one finds psychologists (generally making arguments in naïve ignorance) and anthropologists (who presumably should know better, given their broader understanding of the variables of culture) insisting that one may speak of a universal experience of adolescence, for instance (Brody, 1965; Kiell, 1964; Mead).[12] That these works date from some half-century ago testify more to the fashion of the day than the on-going habit for such totalizing talk, at least as far as the human experience of “adolescence” worldwide goes, but it shows also a habit of generalizing that relies upon invalidly substituting “white experience” as the template for “human experience”. This echoes the point made by Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975),[13] who have no objection to works of art by and about men, so long as any claims to speak for “humanity” in such works authentically speak (1) in fact to strictly male human experiences, or (2) do not misapply or substitute “male experience” in place of “human experience” generally.

The most abrupt and glaring example of “exotic” or “foreign” (i.e., non-universal in a white sense) experience described by Lat concerns his circumcision, at age 10. I needn’t go into details—like all of the ceremonial aspects that go along with it—because already, by having genital mutilation occur not a few days after birth, when supposedly it leaves no scar (other than the absence of the foreskin), but rather at an age when one can hardly remain nonself-conscious of the event, then a whole arsenal of Occidental tropes kick in to treat this non-universal aspect of coming-of-age as a (Muslim) barbarism or whatnot.

I would point to, but leave aside here, the fact that making circumcision something that the entire community, including the one circumcised, participates in, as opposed to making it a medical (or religious) procedure in which the person circumcised has no awareness makes for a radically different experience, as wa Thiong’o attests to favourably in The River Between. He expressly speaks of how undergoing circumcision, which reads in his Kenyan experience as more intense than Lat describes in his Malaysian experience, changes him; he speaks to the head-space it prompts him to occupy and the sea-change it affects. This emphasis on the psychological rather than the physiological obviously makes a vastly different point than opponents of circumcision generally focus on, especially where female circumcision goes. But for all of the hysterics and histrionics expended by Occidental commentators on the barbaric practices of circumcision (male or female) around the world, Lat offers in his book the one page summary, “In two minutes it was over! It was not very painful. Just like an ant bite!” (105).

Whatever the claimed merits or demerits of circumcision, whatever the dubious arguments advanced in Occidental circles about the medical value or necessity of male circumcision or not (Spock, 1989),[14] and whatever the manifold and contradictory claims and evidences attested around female circumcision (e.g., Koso-Thomas, 1987;[15] Shell-Duncan & Hernland, 2000;[16] Toubia, 1994[17]), what I suspect most would agree upon would involve that when and where circumcision does occur, it should do so in a safe, sanitary, and socially supported way (as also for abortion). The horror stories we hear, as also the critiques of male circumcision in Occidental circles, serve to call into question the means or the circumstances under which circumcision occurs, not the practice itself.[18] No young woman should face the possibility of dying as a result of circumcision—so safe conditions, not eradication of the cultural practice, follows logically from the horror stories; similarly, males in the Occidental world who (rightly) object to genital mutilation they had no say or choice in points, again, to a problem of the means, not the cultural practice itself.

Contextualised in this way, the sequence involving Lat’s circumcision at age ten certainly places in the text a massive discourse that would re-frame what he reports in a (doubled-consciousness) way not intended by his book. I remember from an anthropology class in my college days reading about or seeing films on the Yąnomamö, Papua New Guineans, and the Nuer, and trying to find for myself whether I would want to live in those cultures, and generally answering no. I hardly think the purpose of such exposure wanted to prompt that question, but when invited to see how other people live, when it comes with no attempt to “placate” the dominant gaze doing the observing, the question probably occurs readily enough.[19]

The other moment involves a wedding that Lat attends. Here, again, the ceremonial differences in several places contrast markedly with Occidental (US) experience. And a reading hinges upon to what extent a non-double-conscious gaze resists (or can resist) Othering the people represented, whether in banal, effectively racist terms (“look how those people get married; it’s ridiculous”) or in voluptuously orientalist terms (“ooh, those foreign weddings are so cool and exotic”). This does not mean one cannot manage cultural appreciation; it means that one must begin by acknowledging the partiality of the gaze that frames how we look upon the Other in the first place.

Such an acknowledgment never becomes complete or total, though it does reach a point (a limit) where given our current frame of understanding can go no further. We can realise that our own aversion to getting circumcised at age ten points (in Malaysian cultural terms) to a professed desire to remain perpetually childish, i.e., never to actually take on the mind-set of an adult—a diagnosis that even Occidental commentators have directed at (US) culture more than once (Kiley, 1983).[20]

For Lat’s part, he has stated part of his reason for composing this book. With the success of his newspaper column Scenes from Malaysian Life, as his “fame grew, he began questioning his city lifestyle and reminiscing about his life in the kampung. Lat felt he and his fellow citizens had all forgotten their village origins and wanted to remind them of that” (from <href=”#Conception”>here).

This may explain the very different depiction of people in this book and Town Boy. In the later book, people regularly get twisted into all kinds of distorted shapes, often anatomically impossible ones. Similarly, while prominent teeth figure in both books, we find them far, far, far more plentifully (and often with more than a tinge of excess) in the later book. In general, particularly with his origins as a political cartoonist, Lat and others characterise his work as attentive to sensibilities and never “aggressively” pushing any envelopes. We might read this as overly safe or capitulatory, but one may still note that the change in presentation from one book to the next points to a pushing of an envelope, however gently or not.

Call it a kind of homesickness for his childhood, the first book (this one) does not permit a view of the “questioning of city life” (because it remains entirely set within the kampong) that the second book does, but it seems that the motive remains the same in both books. Once again, however, how easily one may quickly read this as the sort of infantile regression Freudians like to make such a fuss about. In point of fact, what Lat emphasises does not involve the experience of childhood so much as the setting of it, i.e., specifically the profoundly social character of lived experience. The childhood of the average US suburbanite has nothing of the deeply implicated social life that Lat depicts; we have nothing of the “city-wide festival” attending our circumcision. Our weddings may sometimes bring, in effect, the entirety of a child’s world into a single event and focus, but weddings don’t occur on a daily basis, whereas the sheer daily experience Lat depicts occurs ever and always within something like that total world.

Putting it too bluntly, one lives (tribally) face-to-face in the kampong in a way that town life, with its vastly more populated social structures, simply does not permit. This does not automatically condemn the city as a failed social structure, but it does show how one of the costs of city (town) life involves a loss of the unmediated sense of relationship with everyone around you; or, rather, that such an unmediated experience no longer becomes a tacit assumption one may expect of those around you. Your neighbour’s house no longer constitutes a place you may wander into at will (as a child or not). And so forth.

This yearning for social relatedness, as a loss suffered (or at least experienced as a dominant fact) in town life, does not in any way connect to infantile regression. In a culture like our own, where the monetization of social relationships has become a doxa of our lived experience, the very idea of a “tribal childhood” has become all but impossible, except in those places where environmental constraints lead to closed communities. Some of these communities do so deliberately (the Amish, the Mushketian Turks); some do so accidentally (towns or villages isolated by geographic features); some do so in a desperatized way (sorry for the weird word), i.e., ghettos hostilely encircled or cut off from city life by police, &c., or a place like Gaza, &c.

In general, however, the dominant mode of US culture fosters the opposite of a tribal childhood; in line with the dominant ideology, we emphasize more the individual over the group than vice versa (for example), so that our nostalgia for childhood does have more the character of a neurotic or regressive condition, because what we yearn for involves merely our own (undeveloped, naïve, childish) sensibilities—yearning for “simpler times” or “innocence all over again” from the “harsh lessons” that pseudo-adult life have “inflicted” upon us. We might remember fondly “the gang” we once ran with, but even our experience of that gang already remains deeply informed by the individualistic accent. No doubt, in such a culture, experiences in the military may very often provide something more like the kind of sense of belonging and “home” that Lat assumes as self-evident in his depiction of the kampong. I’d have to call it tragic that a best place to find “belonging” and “home” arises in a context that requires training for (if not the actuality of) participating in the destruction of other people’s lives around the world and domestically.

So our human desire for “community” already seems confused or misdirected, but to the extent that it points actually at the kind of interrelatedness that Lat assumes as a matter of course in his depiction of the kampong, then one may say with certainty that that longing represents something profoundly pro-social and not something regressive at all.

This doesn’t mean I have to exoticise the setting he depicts. The fact that I would not want circumcision at age ten helps to point to the reminder that (1) we do not invent our desirable social settings in generally (perhaps unfortunately), even as they remain the product of the power structure that supports and generates them, and that (2) the social structure I genuinely desire would not consist of one that merely gratifies my individualistic desires but would, in exchange for my assent to cultural norms, bring with it that sense of belonging that our current ideology of materialism so miserably manages to stand in for.


 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Lat. (2006). Kampung boy. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–141.

[3] Lat. (1980). Town Boy: Macmillan.

[4] Abouet, M, and Oubrerie, C (2007). Aya. (trans. H. Dascher). 1st hardcover ed. Montréal : New York: Drawn & Quarterly, pp. 1–106.

[5] Hesse, H. (2003). Beneath the Wheel: A Novel: Macmillan.

[6] wa Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ. (1965). The river between. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

[7] Von Goethe, J. W. (1989). Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship (Vol. 9): Princeton University Press

[8] Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk: Oxford University Press

[9] Dyer, R. (1997). White: Essays on race and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

[10] When I say “non-Malaysian” I mean to point to those who do not have the kind of acculturation that permits a “Malaysian” reading (understanding) of the book.

[11] Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (1995). Health and culture: Beyond the Western paradigm: Sage.

[12] See Brody, E. B. (1965). The Universal Experience of Adolescence. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 140(3), 235-238; Kiell, N. (1964). The universal experience of adolescence: International Universities Press New York; Mead, M. The Universal Experience of Adolescence (from here).

[13] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[14] Spock, B. (1989). Circumcision—it’s not necessary. Redbook, 53. This seems a retraction of his earlier advocacy.

[15] Koso-Thomas, O. (1987). The circumcision of women: a strategy for eradication.

[16] Shell-Duncan, B., & Hernlund, Y. (2000). Female “circumcision” in Africa: Dimensions of the practice and debates. Female “circumcision” in Africa: Culture, controversy, and change, 1-40.

[17] Toubia, N. (1994). Female circumcision as a public health issue. New England Journal of Medicine, 331(11), 712-716

[18] Such critique would comprise a separate argument.

[19] Some naïve people might think this all suggests that only “whites” can adopt such a totalizing view of the world. The same sort of people tend to believe that white racism and “black racism” function identically within white supremacist culture. One can only find such naiveté or ignorance pitiable o offensive, depending upon whether the person gives up such a claim when corrected for their error. In a similar vein, if we find a totalizing view within Occidental culture by someone not from the dominant culture (often a comprador intellectual), then it remains just as naïve or ignorant to imagine that that totalization functions identically to such totalizations by the dominant culture. But this also means that when a totalizing culture like ours “reads” a totalizing gesture from within another culture, then the default involves our misreading it. Defining the Other as subaltern, we then cannot hear when the subaltern speaks (it no longer remains a question if the subaltern can). And so we will misread claims to universalism such as that found in the Malaysian writer Adibah Amin, quoted in Redza (2003),* who says of Lat:

He is at one and the same time childlike and mature, outrageous and delicate, Malaysian and universal. He always gets away with a lot mainly because his humour is utterly free from malice, sharp but never wounding, coaxing us irresistibly to laugh with him at the delectable little absurdities around us and within us. Typical Malaysian foibles most of these, yet as foreign fans testify, they touch chords in people from other cultures too.

* Redza Piyadasa (2003). “Lat the Cartoonist—An Appreciation”. Pameran Retrospektif Lat [Retrospective Exhibition 1964–2003]. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: National Art Gallery. pp. 84–99. ISBN 983-9572-71-7

[20] Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan syndrome: Men who have never grown up: Dodd, Mead.


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